PARIS (Reuters) - Al Jazeera, best known for its Middle Eastern news coverage, is taking aim at Europe's pay-TV market, using sport to build a global media brand, just as owner Qatar is raising its profile by hosting the 2022 World Cup.
The broadcaster is racing to launch a new French channel in early June in time for the European Football championships, offering a service for about 11 euros per month, according to three industry sources. The channel's name, 'beIN Sport', has been trademarked worldwide.
The sports world is also buzzing with anticipation that Al Jazeera, with Qatar's gas and oil wealth behind it, could put big money on the table to bid for UK rights to the Premier League now mostly held by News Corp affiliate BSkyB.
"The Qataris see sport as being an entree for themselves on the world stage, and the next piece in the jigsaw puzzle is a really big rights acquisition," said Graham Shear, a lawyer specialising in sports matters.
"The Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore is trying to generate a competition;آ he would love to see Sky and Al Jazeera go head to head."
No one who has watched Al Jazeera become the most watched news channel in the Arab world will underestimate the company, nor its importance to Qatar. The emirate has kept the financing taps open despite repeated protests from neighbouring countries against the uncensored views it broadcasts and hostility from the West for airing videos from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the organisation's deadly attacks on the United States in 2001.
The broadcaster is already no novice at sports coverage. In the past decade, it has built the most popular sports network in the Middle East and Africa, with two free and 15 pay channels, plus an English version with a dozen commentators and producers.
But to create a local European player it will have to take on established pay-TV groups in each market, shell out big money for rights, especially in England, and overcome its lack of a distribution network.
Both Sky and France's pay-TV leader Canal+, which is owned by Vivendi, have large subscriber bases built on broad offers featuring exclusive movies, TV series, and sports.
They control their distribution via satellite, while Al Jazeera will have to sign deals with cable, telecom, and satellite companies to get its channels to air.
"There is no real example of a challenger in the pay-TV business succeeding in dethroning an established player, although many have tried," said Claudio Aspesi, media analyst at Bernstein Research.
"You can spoil someone else's business pretty easily by pushing up the cost of the content rights, but that doesn't mean that you can create a profitable business for yourself."
Since Al Jazeera has said little about its plans and declined requests for an interview, it remains unclear what their ambitions are for their sports channels nor how much money they will devote to it.
Its competitors worry that with Qatar's riches, it will be able to outbid them for rights and then support years of losses while it builds out its business, as it did for the news business.
Canal+ deputy chief executive Rodolph Belmer told Reuters that the French pay-TV network could handle competition with Al Jazeera's new channel entry for now because it had secured key sports rights for Top 14 French rugby and the biggest French and European soccer games.
"For the next four years, we don't see any risk to our business model or our development," said Belmer.
"The question is what will happen afterwards and whether Al Jazeera seeks to become hegemonic by drawing on Qatar's great wealth, or if they act rationally and are willing to co-exist with us."
In the past 10 months, Al Jazeera has spent about 300 million euros (249 million pounds) scooping up broadcast rights to France's soccer league, the Champions League and Europa League, as well as some top-flight games from Germany and Italy.
French fans who want to watch the 'El Clasico' match-ups between Barcelona and Real Madrid will now have to subscribe to Al Jazeera after it pipped Canal+ for the Spain rights.
Al Jazeera hired Charles Bietry, a former Canal+ executive who pioneered the network's soccer coverage, to create the French channels. He promptly poached two star football presenters from Canal+ and wooed a raft of producers and younger journalists with 30 percent pay hikes.
To overcome the distribution issue, Al Jazeera is in talks with France Telecom, Vivendi's SFR, Iliad, and cable operator Numericable, to be distributed to their roughly 12 million TV customers, according to multiple industry sources.
Al Jazeera has also had preliminary talks with Canal+ to see if it will offer the channel to its roughly 6 million pay-TV subscribers in France, the same people said.
But it is unclear what cut Canal+ would demand for distribution, or if it would even be willing to give its new rival broader exposure just to keep some of its customers happy.
Analysts and industry executives predict that most sports fans will end up paying the extra 11 euros for Al Jazeera on top of their Canal+ subscription of 35 euros a month.
That's because Canal+ still has the premium lots of rights for the pick of the French soccer league matches to 2018, the 13 first choice games for the Champions League to 2015, as well as the rugby through 2016.
Being in second place could make it difficult for beIN Sport to reach the critical mass needed to achieve profitability, said Jerome Bodin, an analyst for Natixis.
Natixis and Barclays analysts expect about 1.5 million customers will sign up, but that 3 million would be needed for it to break even.
Many expect their ambitions are not confined to France.
In England, Ross Hair, head of sports broadcaster ESPN, has said an Al Jazeera bid was a "realistic prospect", with the English Premier League sale process expected in April or May.
England would cost Al Jazeera far more than France. The 2010-2013 soccer rights sold for 1.78 billion pounds ($2.8 billion), with Sky taking five of the six TV packages for 1.62 billion pounds.
Setanta Sports tried to take on Sky a few years ago but couldn't sign up enough customers to cover the costs of the rights it had bought and was forced to shut down in Britain in 2009.
This time Sky is expected to try to get the best rights again, while ESPN will try to keep its toehold - the single package of rights it picked up on Setanta's demise.
A major wildcard would be whether the English league decides to sell the rights on a Europe-wide basis instead of its usual country-by-country approach.
English Premier League chief Scudamore recently said this was a possibility in light of a recent European Court of Justice ruling that the Premier League and BSkyB cannot block people from using foreign decoders to access pay-TV packages in countries where they are cheaper.
Toby Syfret said Al Jazeera would have a tougher time breaking into Spain, where each soccer team sells its own rights, giving top sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona huge clout.
In Italy, Syfret points out that not only is Sky Italia strong there, but free-to-air broadcaster Mediaset also sells premium sports offerings and is trying to eat away at Sky's leadership.
Germany may be less difficult terrain because Sky is not as dominant and Al Jazeera could secure broad distribution over the country's extensive cable network.
But Deutsche Telekom seems to be positioning itself as a challenger to Sky Deutschland, so it won't be a straight fight.
On Monday the telecom operator told Reuters that it planned to bid for the 2013-2018 rights to Germany's top soccer league now held by Sky. Potential bidders are supposed to notify the league on Monday if they intend to bid.
If Al Jazeera is also stepping into the fray, Deutsche Telekom, and all of Europe's pay-TV providers, might need deep pockets.
"If this is a brand or prestige-building exercise for Qatar, then maybe there is no real obligation to make money," said Claudio Aspesi of Bernstein.
"In that case, and if Al Jazeera has unlimited means, then all bets are off."
(Reporting by Leila Abboud, Gwenelle Barzic, and Keith Weir; Editing by Will Waterman)