By Jonathan Rest

StarTimes, the Chinese-owned pay-television operator in sub-Saharan Africa, is facing the threat of a winding up order after failing to pay BeIN Media Group for rights to French soccer’s Ligue 1, GlobalData Sport can exclusively reveal.

GlobalData Sport also understands that the broadcaster, part of Hong Kong-based holding company Century Sun, has delayed payments to other rights-holders, albeit these have not escalated to legal proceedings as yet.

StarTimes has been expanding its portfolio of top-tier soccer in recent years – in August last year it landed non-exclusive French language rights to Spanish soccer’s LaLiga for four years, and other competitions it is showing in the 2020-21 season include Spain’s Copa del Rey, England’s FA Cup, Italy’s Coppa Italia and Europe’s Uefa Europa League and delayed 2020 European Championships.

However, it is the deal struck mid-way through 2018 for the English- and local-language rights to Ligue 1 and other French soccer properties in sub-Saharan Africa that has brought to light the financial difficulties facing the broadcaster.

Having failed to make any payments for those rights, StarTimes is currently in debt to BeIN to the tune of close to $11 million, including interest, according to the court petition.

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After the matter was taken to the courts in Hong Kong, a new monthly payment plan instigated by StarTimes was agreed upon by the two parties prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, but StarTimes missed the first instalment due on 1 October.

Talks between the two parties’ legal representatives since have failed to reach a conclusion, with BeIN, which holds international Ligue 1 rights from 2018-19 to 2023-24, having now taken the decision to issue a winding up order on StarTimes.

In the 2018-19 season StarTimes cited the tough economic climate in Africa for failing to make payments and said this, coupled with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic across the continent, had exacerbated the financial situation in 2020.

Despite this, the company has carried on acquiring rights over the past year, such as the aforementioned long-term deal with LaLiga, a seven-year, $7.7 million deal with the FKF, the Kenyan Football Federation, and last month’s agreement with the Confederation of African Football for the African Nations Championship.

The sports portfolio also includes the new Extreme E motor racing series (a deal with sister series Formula E ended last year) and just this week it added USA’s Impact Wrestling.

A source with knowledge of the legal proceedings told GlobalData Sport: “It should be of huge concern to the industry that an entity facing winding up proceedings is, in the same breath, parading around the world signing deals with much fanfare. We’ve seen this kind of conduct before and it only ends badly for rights-holders and the industry.”

StarTimes said it will not be making any official comment on the legal case.

While StarTimes has kept up to date with payments to many rights-holders, GlobalData Sport has learned that the BeIN-Ligue 1 situation is not an isolated one, with the broadcaster understood to be in arrears for other top-tier soccer properties, particularly in Europe.

An insider from one of the agency giants told GlobalData Sport there are now “concerns about making future deals with StarTimes given the concern over their financial health.”

Another, from the broadcasting sector in Asia, said the delay in payments was coupled by a “tight budget for new acquisitions.”

The plight of StarTimes will sound further notes of caution about Chinese-ownership in the sports business industry, with PPTV, the streaming platform owned by Suning, having lost English Premier League rights and had its Italian Serie A feed cut in recent months because of missed rights payments.

In addition, Mediapro, the Spanish media rights and production agency owned by Orient Hontai Capital, the Chinese private equity firm, had its domestic Ligue 1 rights contract ripped up for failing to make payments, and there is also the case of MP & Silva, which was wound up by the UK High Court’s Bankruptcy Court in October 2018, less than two years after being taken over by Chinese tech firm Baofeng and investment company Everbright Capital.