Cup broadcasts: How Middle East misses an opportunity

Cup broadcasts: How Middle East misses an opportunity

Cup broadcasts: How Middle East misses an opportunity

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (C), widely dubbed the best player in the world, tries to dribble past Belgium’s Axel Witsel (R) and Toby Alderweireld during the two teams’ World Cup quarterfinal clash. AFP photo

No matter how entrenched animosities in the Middle East may be, one principle is upheld by all: never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The controversy over access to broadcasts of World Cup matches makes that clear.

Pricing by Qataris holding World Cup rights for the Middle East and North Africa, including al-Jazeera’s beIN Sports channel, puts broadcasts beyond the reach of many fans in the region. Inevitably, that is a public issue in a football-crazy part of the world. Add into the mix Arab-Israeli animosity and hostility towards Qatar because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the issue becomes politically explosive.

In Lebanon, high pricing commanded the attention of a Cabinet preoccupied with shielding the ethnic and religious mosaic from further fallout of sectarian and jihadist violence in Syria and Iraq. In Egypt, Qatari pricing policy is like scoring an own goal. beIN Sports, charges $140 for World Cup matches; Egypt’s average monthly income is $360 a month.

Qatari pricing closed down an opportunity to try to win back hearts by ensuring that large numbers of people in the region would have affordable or free access to matches at a time that al-Jazeera is under fire for its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood and has lost regional market share.

Al-Jazeera’s operations in Egypt have been shut down for much of the past year. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported last year that the network’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 percent in 2011 to 4.8 percent in 2012 and that al-Jazeera, prior to the crackdown, was no longer among Egypt’s 10 most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that al-Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels.

The beneficiary of Qatar’s political faux pas, Israel, seems equally incapable of capitalizing on the fact that many in countries that border on the Jewish state tune into Amos, the Israeli satellite station that grants free access to World Cup matches.

Conspiracy theories

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, initially welcomed Arab viewers in remarks on social media. “I hear that many football fans in neighboring countries are watching the World Cup live on Israeli channels. We welcome you,” Mr. Gendelman said on Facebook.

Access to a massive Arab audience constituted an opportunity for Israel to subtly attempt to forge links where peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have failed to build cultural and public diplomacy links.

Instead, Mr. Gendelman provoked a torrent of abuse several days after his welcoming comment by publishing Hebrew football slogans written with the Arabic alphabet that he hoped would prove useful to Arab fans.

Responses by Egyptian fans on social media reflected conflicting feelings of on the one hand favoring a boycott of Israel because of the Jewish state’s occupation of Arab territory for almost half a century, and on the other the desire to take advantage of the free access Israel grants.

“We are taking what we want from you but after the World Cup, Goodbye Amos Satellite,” said one Egyptian fan on Twitter. “Get us an Arabic commentator and I will pray for you that you die soon!” said another. A third asked: “How do you translate: a prayer in al-Quds?” using the Arabic name of Jerusalem.

Israel and Qatar’s lost opportunity was further evident in widely circulated conspiracy theories that sought to make sense of the predicament of viewers in the region.

The Egyptian Sports Writers Association denounced what it said was an “al-Jazeera conspiracy to force Arab nations to watch Zionist channels.” Its evidence: Al-Jazeera, which is suing the Egyptian government for $150 million for disrupting its business since last year’s coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, has failed to take Israeli channels to task in a bid to force a normalization of relations between Arabs and Israelis. “We demand all Arabs not to watch Zionist channels, even at the price of not watching the World Cup,” the association said.

Former player Ibrahim el-Masri told Egypt’s state-owned al-Ahram newspaper that Israel was exploiting Egyptian poverty. “Israel is targeting poor and badly-educated people,” he said. El-Masri described free access to Israeli broadcasts as “obvious propaganda” that was “the beginning” of a strategy to “hook Arab viewers.”

Indeed, a smarter Israeli approach may just have had that effect, an effect Qatar could have countered had it approached World Cup matches as a public diplomacy rather than a commercial opportunity.