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Mideast Network to Pull Formula One in Setback for Liberty

David Hellier
Mideast Network to Pull Formula One in Setback for Liberty

(Bloomberg) -- Formula One is searching for a broadcaster in the Middle East and North Africa after BeIN Sports decided not to renew its five-year contract, in a setback for the motor-racing competition’s U.S. owner Liberty Media Corp.

Qatari-owned TV network BeIN walked away because of disappointing viewing figures and rampant piracy in the region, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified as the discussions were private. BeIN’s 2014-19 deal for live broadcast rights was worth $30 million to $40 million a year, according to people with knowledge of the terms.

That’s as much as 7 percent of Formula One’s estimated broadcast income, said media analyst Richard Broughton at Ampere Analysis. A spokesman for Formula One said it was in the late stages of finalizing arrangements with a new licensee for the region.

Shares of Liberty Media were down 2.1 percent as of 11:38 a.m. in New York.

The dominant international car racing series has lost viewers in the past decade. Billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Media bought the sport for $4.4 billion in 2017 with a view to reviving interest beyond its European base, boosting sponsorship and harnessing virtual reality and video games to cultivate a new generation of fans.

Liberty has extended Formula One’s reach in Asia by agreeing to a new circuit in Vietnam from 2020, and now hopes to add Miami. It has begun a direct-to-consumer digital streaming service that aims to have around 2 million subscribers by 2027. Formula One says audiences have begun to grow more recently.

Trade War

It has fared less well with its partner in the Middle East. BeIN warned in November it would cut spending on major sports events unless the industry did more to stop a rival Saudi-based network from stealing its content and broadcasting it illegally.

The battle between BeIN and the competing outfit known as BeoutQ comes amid a diplomatic and trade war between Saudi Arabia and its small Gulf Arab neighbor. The Saudi government denies having any links to BeoutQ, whose channels are distributed online and over the Arabsat satellite network based in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Explaining the decision to exit Formula One, BeIN regional managing director Tom Keaveny said the company’s bidding decisions now factored in whether a rights owner was doing everything it could to combat piracy by BeoutQ. In an indirect swipe at Formula One, he said BeIN will pay less for rights that cannot be protected, “in particular to the rights holders who pay only lip service to combating BeoutQ.”

Ampere analyst Broughton said it was difficult to see another regional broadcaster stepping in to bid the sums that BeIN was paying.

“Gulf operators are under intense pressure at the moment from piracy and poor consumer receptiveness to paying high monthly fees for content,” Broughton said in an email.

(Adds Liberty share price in fourth paragraph, BeIN comment in ninth.)

To contact the reporter on this story: David Hellier in London at dhellier@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Aaron Kirchfeld at akirchfeld@bloomberg.net, ;Rebecca Penty at rpenty@bloomberg.net, Thomas Pfeiffer

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