Chinese-owned Mediapro launches offensive for French football

by Emmanuelle MICHEL
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Chinese-owned Mediapro, whose headquarters are in Barcelona, have snapped up the rights to France's Ligue 1 football

Spain's Mediapro, majority-owned by a Chinese investment fund, has strengthened its presence in European sports broadcasting by snapping up the rights to broadcast France's Ligue 1 football, highlighting the growing interest in China for European football.

In a major blow to Vivendi's French broadcaster Canal Plus which has shown Ligue 1 matches since 1984 and now holds the bulk of the rights, Mediapro on Tuesday won the rights to broadcast the games for the period 2020 to 2024 in an auction by the French football league.

Total yearly broadcasting rights for the championship, including lower level packages of the match bundles on offer which Mediapro did not bid for, will reach a record 1.15 billion euros ($1.33 billion), a 60-percent jump over the previous five-year period.

Mediapro, a major TV and film producer, is planning to create a TV channel specifically dedicated to French football, France's League of Professional Football (LFP) said in a statement announcing the results of the rights auction.

With 6,600 employees and revenues of 1.6 billion euros in 2017, Mediapro is a heavyweight when it comes to European sports content.

It holds the rights to the bulk of the Spanish league's matches as well as the rights to broadcast the main international football championships in Spain.

The company also has the rights to broadcast Formula One car racing championships in Spain as well as Euroleague basketball games.

- 'Great players' -

This is not the first time that Mediapro and Canal Plus have clashed over broadcast rights.

Between 2006 and 2013 Mediapro and Spanish pay-TV company Sogecable, which had the rights to broadcast Canal Plus's programmes in Spain and which historically held the rights to broadcast most La Liga matches in Spain, fought what the press dubbed a "football war".

Mediapro began negotiating directly with individual clubs the right to broadcast their matches, leading to lengthy court battles with Sogecable. Mediapro eventually ended up with the bulk of Spain's La Liga broadcast rights.

The Barcelona-based production company, which has produced Woody Allen films such as "Midnight in Paris" in addition to documentaries and TV series, was founded by Jaume Roures, who is reportedly close to Catalonia's separatist leaders.

Its sudden interest in the French league is directly linked to Chinese private equity group Orient Hontai Capital's decision in February to acquire a majority stake in Mediapro, said Carlos Canto, a professor at Spanish business school ESADE who focuses on the economics of sports.

"Interest in French football and Ligue 1 matches is growing" especially in China "thanks to teams like Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon or Marseille, and of course the arrival of great players like Neymar," he told AFP.

- Italian woes -

In a sign of the growing interest in Asia in French football, in March a Paris Saint-Germain-Nice match was scheduled for 1:00 pm on a Sunday, an unusual time in France but which meant it could air during prime time in China.

China has been investing heavily in football and media in recent years. The country in 2014 declared sports, and especially football, a priority and since then Chinese investors have bought AC Milan, taken control of OGC Nice and own a minority share in Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City.

"But since 2017, they have put a brake on these investments, which have caused capital flight and have not always generated the expected return on investment," economist Ivana Casaburi, a specialist in Chinese investment in Europe, told AFP.

The only operations which China now authorises are those considered to have a high potential for profitability, such as Orient Hontai's purchase of Mediapro, she added.

Mediapro's expansion strategy has run into roadblocks.

An Italian court earlier this month annulled a contract awarding the company rights to broadcast Serie A football matches for 2018-21 for just over one billion euros, ruling in favour of a legal challenge by Sky's Italian unit which argued the sale did not respect Italian competition rules.

Pending the conclusion of the case, Italian viewers do not yet know where they will be able to see matches nest season, which begins on August 18.

Chinese-owned Mediapro, whose headquarters are in Barcelona, have snapped up the rights to France's Ligue 1 football

Brazilian superstar Neymar, pictured here with his Paris Saint-Germain and international teammate Thiago Silva, is the biggest name in the French league