Muslim TV network AL JAZEERA is probably best known for being the primary source of videotaped leaks from Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaida and other jihadist groups. But while Americans were preoccupied with the network’s political coverage, the Qatar-based company has stealthily built up a solid sports network five years ago, with a portfolio that now includes the Middle East broadcasting rights for Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and, starting next fall, the UEFA Champions League.
(AL JAZEERA is best known for breaking news on this guy, but Cristiano Ronaldo could overshadow him within 12 months. That’s not a joke at all, it’s big news.)
Well, now the Muslim network is apparently readying for their biggest bid for sports legitimacy of all - by planning to acquire the rights to the English Premier League.
According to BLOOMBERG NEWS, a contract between Al Jazeera & the EPL would run from 2009 through 2012. Though the EPL’s Mideast rights are currently held by Sumner Redstone’s pay-tier SHOWTIME ARABIA, there are plenty of reasons to believe that AL JAZEERA’s intentions are legitimate and significant … and that a successful bid for the English top-flight’s rights could completely change the way the network is viewed across the world, which could have deep socio-political effects in countries as far and wide as the U.S.
Think about it: If CNN was largely dominated by sectarian, right-wing Christian evangelists who — for no necessary reason beyond the interest of their own safety — had to broadcast religio-political messages throughout each story, it would have a hard time getting a legitimate foothold in Western Europe, let alone the Middle East and Asia. That’s very much the scenario that AL JAZEERA faces, though its sports network is steadily bridging the gap to the rest of the world’s more mainstream news networks.
By televising each significant soccer league in the world — the German Bundesliga excluded (we’re not willing to call France’s Ligue 1 a significant league - sorry, Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique Marseille) — AL JAZEERA is proving that it can see and expose the biggest, most important sports news to a homogenous religious audience that disagrees with
much nearly all of the culture that manifests itself in the sport on the screen.
(AL JAZEERA already has this, but the roaring lion may be on its way.)
To hark back to the earlier metaphor, it’s like CNN buying the NFL rights and broadcasting them across Europe, if Europe suddenly became obsessed with American football. Make no mistake, this is a very big deal.
So, will AL JAZEERA pull off it’s attempted rights coup? There are significant reasons to believe it will. The network’s subscriptions continue to grow, and the EPL would be an enormous addition to its new English-language news channel, with which it could partner in showing both live matches and highlights from the league’s games. On top of that, its believed that the market may be driving the network toward the bid because of popularity with the English soccer it currently televises; AL JAZEERA already owns FA Cup rights, which run through at least 2012.
Put all the puzzle pieces together, and this bid suddenly looks like a must-win for the Arabic language network, both for diversification and additional international legitimacy. With the EPL, Al Jazeera suddenly becomes the one and sole major Middle East news network, the BBC and ESPN wrapped into one. U.S.-funded AL ARABIA would become a joke, and, in a fascinating way, the culture that is inherently linked with so much of AL JAZEERA’s audience may become more accepted. That’s not a bad thing, provided that you accept that AL JAZEERA represents Muslim pacifists … or at least rationalists.
Whether that’s true or not is anyone’s guess. Let’s just hope that if the network does land those EPL rights, that guess is on peaceful acceptance, and that that guess is right.