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MBC Plots Sports Comeback With Saudi Football Coverage

As players stepped on the pitch of King Fahad International Stadium in Riyadh to kick off the new Saudi football season, the sound of money came louder than the cheers of sports fans.

A few minutes before the game started on Thursday, Middle East Broadcasting Center Group inked a deal with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation worth 3.6 billion riyals ($960 million) over 10 years to buy the television rights of the country’s top flight competitions.

The deal represents a big comeback to sports for the Dubai-based media giant, better known as MBC, which has in recent years focused on entertainment and Western-imported reality television shows. The company said it will broadcast around 240 matches per season on four new free-to-air channels launched last week.

MBC’s Ali Al Hadithi hopes the deal will contribute to a football renaissance in Saudi Arabia.

Ali Al Hadithi, director general of MBC, left the door open to the possibility of moving into a paid subscription model later saying they will have to discuss that with football officials, who said they will study their options then decide based on what is in the sport’s best interests.

“We hope this deal will contribute to a football renaissance in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Al Hadithi said.

The government has been working on a major plan to revitalize the national game.

King Abdullah earlier this year ordered building 11 new stadiums around the country, each with a capacity of 45,000 spectators. The state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco has been tasked with managing the project, scheduled to be completed in two years, and offering the largest upgrade to the kingdom’s sports infrastructure in decades.

However, the weeks and days leading up to the television rights deal have been surrounded with controversy as competitors of MBC complained that the process of selling the rights lacked fairness and transparency.

Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal said Tuesday on Twitter that he offered SAR4 billion, describing what happened as “going against the king’s instructions.”

أخي خالد،ما يحصل بحقوق نقل الدوري يخالف توجهات الملك عرضنا ٤مليار عرض المنافس ٣,٦مليار وإدعائهم بشراكة ال٥٠٠ مليون مع التلفزيون نفاها الوزير

— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) August 5, 2014

Kingdom Holding, in which Prince Alwaleed owns a 95% stake, has shares in News Corp, the owner of Dow Jones & Co. and the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

Ahmed Eid, president of the Saudi Football Federation, hinted to political considerations in awarding the contract to MBC, telling the press last week “there are sovereign matters” that are “bigger than football.”

His comments appeared to reflect concern that Qatar-owned beIN Sports would seek to acquire the TV rights of Saudi football. The network, part of Al Jazeera, already broadcasts most of the international tournaments in the Middle East.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since the end of last year. Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recalled their ambassadors in March after accusing gas-rich Qatar of meddling in their internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha denies both allegations.

The Arab Gulf states said in April that they have reached an agreement to end the tension and recent weeks saw senior officials exchanging visits in a signal that the rift could be finally coming to an end. The ambassadors, however, have not returned yet.

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(via WSJ Blogs)