Chinese-owned group wins French soccer rights, Canal Plus empty-handed

PARIS (Reuters) - Vivendi’s Canal Plus ended up empty-handed in a crucial soccer broadcasting rights auction in France on Tuesday, beaten by Spain’s Mediapro, a Chinese-owned group, as prices boomed by close to 60 percent.

The setback in the rights for the Ligue 1 championship, France’s main soccer competition, highlights Canal Plus’ current difficulties to grow in France, where it has historically built a reputation of broadcasting major soccer matches.

It also confirms the inflation of sports rights globally is not over yet and represents a dramatic entry onto France’s broadcasting stage for Mediapro, majority-owned by Chinese private equity fund Orient Hontai.

Annual broadcasting rights for the championship will reach a record of more than 1.15 billion euros ($1.33 billion) over the 2020-2024 period, the head of the country’s professional soccer association Didier Quillot told a news conference in Paris.

“We’re well aware that what happened today will represent a turning point,” Quillot told reporters.

The record amount represents a 59.7 percent jump over the previous five-year period, he said.

Out of the seven lots offered for the auction, three were won by Mediapro, including the one featuring the championship’s top 10 matches. All of the Ligue 1 games were shown on Canal+ Group’s channels in the pre-2020 period.

Qatar-controlled beIN Sports won one smaller lot. French telecoms operator Iliad also won a lot, for the first time in its history.

Two lots were still unattributed as of Tuesday.

“(Canal Plus) bid for each of the seven lots, and for each of these lots, it was outbid by someone who had a better offer,” Quillot said.


Asked by reporters in a call whether Canal+ could survive without showing the French league’s games, Chief Executive Maxime Saada said: “One thing is certain, Canal won’t die for having overpaid sporting rights like most of its competitors.”

Mediapro, which will create a dedicated channel from scratch to broadcast the soccer matches, suffered a setback in Italy earlier this month after a Milan judge cancelled a tender which awarded it the broadcasting rights for the country’s Serie A games. A judicial source cited a breach of anti-trust rules.

The Barcelona-based group, taken over by the Chinese fund in February this year, also owns the rights for the main Spanish soccer championship.

In France, it will have the right to sublicense the rights, an option that was made possible by the soccer association to “free up the minds and budgets,” he said.

Mediapro will therefore have the possibility to sign up distribution deals with telecom and satellite operators. The French unit of telecoms operator Altice might be one of them.

Canal+ said it would consider this option. Its chief executive said it would also consider taking legal action to challenge the results.

Debt-ridden Altice, which won the much coveted broadcasting rights for the Champions League up to 2021 in France, did not take part in this auction, Quillot said.

The group pledged to focus on repaying its debt last year to appease investors and has abandoned its previous strategy of offering exclusive content to its subscribers to drive growth.

Additional reporting by Jean-Michel Belot; editing by Michel Rose/David Evans