Yousef Al-Obaidly Op-Ed: Governments must act on Saudi's industrial scale piracy
By Yousef Al-Obaidly, chief executive, BeIN Media Group
Saudi Arabia’s industrial scale piracy will destroy investment in global sport: governments must take action before the contagion spreads.
It’s always clear on big sporting occasions who the referee is. In the Super Bowl they wear black and white stripes; during Fifa World Cups they wear bright colours; and at Wimbledon they sit high above the net on a tall chair.
Referees command respect, and crowds instantly turn to them when a big decision needs to be made.
But who are the referees of our global commercial game? Who do we turn to when a foul has been committed in the business of sport, and the rule of law needs to be upheld?
Today is World Intellectual Property Day, an event which dates back almost five decades and is organised by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, one of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies. This year’s theme focuses on protecting IP in sport, a necessary move by WIPO as commercial theft in sports broadcasting reaches crisis point.
As you read this, a pirate media empire is illegally broadcasting 10 channels of live sport – including the most valuable competitions in the world such as the Uefa Champions League, the English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga, NBA and NFL – to a region of 400 million.
From Arsenal to the Ashes, the Bundesliga to the Bulls, all available almost for free, twenty-four hours a day, to anyone with a cheap set-top box. Live sport from USA, UK, Spain, Germany, France and across the world is brazenly retransmitted by the pirates, with a seven second delay during which, quite remarkably, the pirates’ logo is superimposed on the screen.
The boxes are a product of an organisation called beoutQ, an illegal Saudi Arabia-based enterprise operating on a scale that rivals history’s biggest cartels. The product they are pushing is premium sport, and the addiction they are creating is for free content in the Middle East and North Africa; ripping up the rule book on how commercial contracts are agreed and investment in sport is made.
How does such a vast criminal business operate so freely? Because it is supported by the Saudi state, which allows a satellite provider called Arabsat to distribute its content from Riyadh and gives approval for beoutQ boxes to be sold and distributed.
Most alarmingly of all for the sports industry, there are early signs that the breakdown of intellectual property protection across the MENA region is leading to contagion. Since beoutQ currently acts with impunity, Lebanon’s state broadcaster, Tele Liban, has shown live matches of the AFC Asian Cup without paying for the right to do so. And because beoutQ doesn’t protect the content it broadcasts, other pirate operators have begun to pirate their transmissions. Already, beoutQ broadcasts have been seen in bars in Florida, cafes in Paris and on the Edgware Road in London as ‘pirates pirate the pirates’. Until action is taken to halt beoutQ’s operation, rights management will be impossible and the Middle East and North Africa will become the Wild West for entertainment companies.
This is not just a regional issue, but a global threat to the sports and entertainment industry, and indeed economies across the world. In the UK, for example, it was recently rumoured that the Premier League is close to finalising overseas rights deals for the 2019-22 cycle which will be worth in the region of £4 billion ($5.2 billion) – a significant investment which will support grassroots football in the country.
The Middle East and Africa is proving to be the fastest growing region for the global entertainment and media industry according to PwC, expanding at three times the rate of Western Europe. But these numbers will never be met again if beoutQ is not shutdown. Without the ability to offer exclusivity, broadcasters and platforms all across the world will not be able to justify the cost of buying rights to these competitions, and investment in sport will be eroded.
So how do we stop beoutQ? Where are the referees blowing their whistles and showing Saudi Arabia the red card?
Fortunately, an industry fightback has begun. Some of the world’s biggest rights holders, including FIFA and the Premier League, are launching legal action in Saudi Arabia. However, the matter is urgent and national governments have a vital role to play in putting pressure on the Saudi government to end beoutQ’s illegal operations. This is the biggest issue our industry is facing, and those with authority must take control.
Countries which stand to lose the most – the USA, UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, France – have influence in the region, and rightsholders must ask their respective governments to intervene to protect their business and their sport, before the contagion spreads and the damage is too deep. Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, quizzed the UK Government about beoutQ in the House of Commons yesterday asking them to hold Saudi Arabia to account; and we need others to follow his lead.
Today, on World Intellectual Property Day, we are calling on all governments who have an interest in the rule of law, international trade, and the protection of intellectual property, to take a stand. If beoutQ continues to operate reign-free this time next year, we may no longer have a fully-functioning industry to protect.