A toxic political dispute is threatening to sink the Persian Gulf’s biggest sports television contract, a development that could have repercussions for other broadcast rights agreements worth billions of dollars.
The Asian Football Confederation, the governing body for soccer in the region, on Tuesday unilaterally broke its exclusive contract with its Middle Eastern broadcast partner, the Qatar-based beIN Media Group, so that it could broadcast matches in Saudi Arabia, a country where beIN has been banned amid a bitter diplomatic and economic crisis between Gulf neighbors that is now in its second year.
The A.F.C’s decision to nullify its contract for the broadcast rights to games in Saudi Arabia comes even after rulers there have allowed a major piracy operation, perhaps the most sophisticated in television history, to steal billions of dollars of sports content owned by beIN since 2017.
BeIN’s rights deals with the A.F.C., which run through 2020, are worth $300 million. The broadcaster immediately announced its intention to file a lawsuit to counter the decision to strip it of the rights to games broadcast in Saudi Arabia, which comes weeks before the A.F.C.’s president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain, stands for re-election. His opposition in that vote consists of a candidate from the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, and another from Qatar.
Yousef Al-Obaidly, beIN’s chief executive, said Tuesday’s decision was not a coincidence; he accused the A.F.C. of colluding with Saudi Arabia ahead of April’s election.
“It is remarkable to see the governing body of football across Asia — which should, by definition, be apolitical — putting politics ahead of its long-term commercial interests and established legitimate relationships,” Al-Obaidly told The New York Times in an emailed statement. “We will use the full force of international law to claim every dollar of damages we have and will incur as a result of the A.F.C.’s unilateral breach of our agreement.”
Previously, the A.F.C. had issued strongly worded condemnations of the theft of beIN’s programming and threats of legal action against the Saudi-based piracy operation, dubbed BeoutQ.
The dispute comes at a delicate time, with beIN Media and the A.F.C locked in negotiations over a new regional contract. The A.F.C. had tried to persuade beIN to agree to purchase future rights but without access to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s biggest market.
News of a separate deal with the A.F.C. for the Saudi rights was first announced by the Saudi soccer federation, well before the A.F.C.’s released its own brief statement on the matter almost 24 hours later.
Salman, who is also a FIFA vice president, has made no comment. The A.F.C said its decision to stream games in Saudi Arabia on its own channels was an attempt to tackle piracy. But within hours, its content was available on other platforms across Saudi Arabia, including on the free-to-air channel Saudi 24. A promise to geoblock coverage so it could only be viewed inside the Gulf’s most-populous country also failed, with the A.F.C.’s stream of its Champions League games available outside the kingdom.
Rights owners across the spectrum of sports, from FIFA to the governing bodies for tennis and track and field, have lodged complaints over the industrial scale piracy of their broadcast rights by BeoutQ. The latest twist could threaten the billions of dollars in income those organizations are able to extract for their content, according to beIN. The company said broadcasters would be unlikely to pay vast sums for exclusive contracts if those rights could be protected.
“There is now no guaranteed protection of intellectual property in the region to due to the A.F.C. in effect endorsing Saudi Arabia’s theft of world sport and wholesale disregard for the international rule of law,” the network said.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE Cristiano Ronaldo scored his first hat trick for Juventus to send the club into the Champions League quarterfinals with a 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid on Tuesday. The Italian side fought back from a two-goal first-leg defeat.
Ronaldo scored from open play in each half and then converted a late penalty as Juventus advanced by 3-2 on aggregate, ending Atlético’s hopes of reaching the final, which will be held in its Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
It was Ronaldo’s eighth hat trick in the competition, moving him even with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and demonstrating why Juventus paid Real Madrid 112 million euros (then $131.5 million) for the Portuguese forward, who has dominated the competition in recent years. Ronaldo is seeking a fourth straight Champions League title; Real Madrid was eliminated without him by Ajax last week.
It was the first time Juventus came back from a two-goal defeat in the first leg.
“Maybe that’s why Juventus signed me,” Ronaldo said. “To help it do things that it had never done before. This result is a great push for the future. We’re strong and we showed it.”
Manchester City also advanced to the quarterfinals, routing Schalke by 7-0 to progress on aggregate, 10-2.
Juventus thought it had taken the lead less than three minutes into its game but a video review confirmed that Ronaldo had fouled Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak before Giorgio Chiellini fired in the rebound.
But a goal eventually came when Italy forward Federico Bernardeschi put in a cross from the left for Ronaldo to head in at the far post in the 27th minute. Ronaldo got his second goal three minutes into the second half, as Joao Cancelo put in a cross from the right. Although Oblak clawed Ronaldo’s header out from under his crossbar, goal-line technology confirmed the ball had crossed the line.
Juventus went all out attack and got the decisive third goal four minutes from the final whistle, when Bernardeschi was nudged over in the penalty area. Ronaldo converted the resulting penalty kick.
In Manchester, Manchester City tied the record for the biggest win in the Round of 16 of the Champions League by thrashing Schalke.
Sergio Agüero scored twice in the first half for City, and Leroy Sané rolled in another goal before halftime before Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus added second-half goals.
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