This Soccer-Rights Rebel Wants to Double Down on Its French Bet

(Bloomberg) -- Mediapro staged a major upset in May when it beat the incumbent to buy the bulk of broadcasting rights in France for the country’s top soccer league. The Chinese-backed Spanish media company says it won’t stop there.

Mediapro now plans to bid for France’s second-tier soccer tournament when the Ligue de Football Professionnel auctions the package next month, according to founder Jaume Roures.

Roures wants to shake up the way France watches soccer by leveraging its 2018 surprise World Cup victory and the resulting renewed domestic passion for the sport. To recoup an investment of billions for four seasons of Ligue 1 soccer starting 2020, Mediapro will start a dedicated TV channel to show the games. Roures is targeting at least 3 million subscribers.

“Our ambition is for that number to increase, by offering a better product thanks to our collaboration with soccer clubs and the leagues to offer reasonable prices for subscribers,” Roures said in an interview in Paris Thursday, on the sidelines of a conference organized by Les Echos. So far, the rights owner, the clubs and France’s leagues have failed to work together effectively, he said.

Documentaries are one way to draw an even broader audience to soccer, beyond core fans, Roures said. Mediapro worked with Inc. to produce “All or Nothing: Manchester City” a documentary about the English team originally broadcast on Amazon Prime Video.

Roures said he’s in talks with Amazon about something similar for France, where clubs like Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain have a global fan base and celebrity players like Kylian Mbappe -- who helped deliver the world cup to France in July -- and Brazil’s Neymar.

In May, Mediapro stunned the market by winning the lion’s share of the Ligue 1 rights for the 2020 to 2024 seasons, outbidding Vivendi SA’s Canal+ pay TV company, which had had a hold on them for more than three decades.

The total price paid to the league was 1.15 billion euros ($1.3 billion) a season for four years, a 60 percent increase on the previous deal. The inflation angered competitors at Canal+, with President Maxime Saada disparaging Mediapro for its lack of economic rationale. Vivendi Chief Executive Officer Arnaud de Puyfontaine last week ratcheted up the rhetoric, saying on a conference call he didn’t regret the loss of the rights, which were sold at a “crazy price.’’

Quality Dilution

In Spain, Mediapro broadcasts several soccer-only channels, under the BeIn brand, and also produces the broadcasts of first-division matches for La Liga. The company is majority-owned by Orient Hontai Capital, a Chinese private-equity investor. Advertising group WPP Plc holds 22.5 percent.

Mediapro doesn’t intend to re-sell its French rights to Canal+ or BeIn Sports, the Qatari-owned channel which launched in France in 2012 and currently has 3.5 million subscribers, because that would dilute the quality of the end-product, Roures said. Canal+ and BeIn Sports currently split the rights to Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 matches.

While the feasibility of Mediapro’s plan is doubted by rivals, the company still has some time to launch its TV channel, which will have to be ready by mid-2020. By that time, the media landscape in France may have changed a lot, Roures said, pointing to the probability of consolidation among France’s telecom carriers, some of which are sport-rights owners, such as Altice Europe NV.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.