French football league scrambles to find broadcaster before season kicks off

by Admin
French football league scrambles to find broadcaster before season kicks off

French football is on the verge of crisis just two years into an investment deal with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, as the league operator struggles to find a broadcaster for the coming season and clubs brace for a summer cash crunch. 

Ligue de Football Professionnel, which operates the top two tiers of French football, has been trying to secure its next TV deal since October, but its ambitions of raising as much as €1bn from the sale have been dashed by weak demand.

Leonard Blavatnik-owned streamer DAZN and Qatari sports broadcaster beIN were the two main prospects for the 2024 to 2029 rights after the current deal with Amazon expired. 

However, the rights auction collapsed in October after failing to drum up a single bid at the reserve price of about €800mn. LFP has since been holding talks directly with interested parties, but no deal has yet materialised. LFP president Vincent Labrune has delayed the league’s annual general meeting, scheduled for the first week of June, until the end of the month, at which time he promised to “propose a definitive solution”.  

One media executive blamed “incompetence” at the league for the current situation, another called the auction process a “total shitshow”. 

A person close to the league disputed that a crisis was brewing and expressed confidence that a deal for the domestic broadcast rights would soon be reached. 

Ligue president Vincent Labrune has promised ‘a definitive solution’ © Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

“There is a difficult negotiation under way, and the leadership of the league refuses to sell at a low price,” said the person. “But it was to be expected that the rights would not be easy to sell this cycle because it will take more time for the promise of the CVC deal to come good.”

The roots of the current crisis can be traced back to 2018, when the LFP chose to sell most of its broadcast rights to Mediapro, an unproven Chinese-backed company, for a record price of €800mn a year for 2020 to 2024. The decision to tie up with a new operator rather than long-standing partner Canal+ proved a fateful choice that is still casting a long shadow over French football.

The league season was curtailed when the pandemic hit in 2020. Mediapro stopped paying and ended up going bust in France, piling financial pressure on the clubs. In crisis, LFP sealed a cut-price deal with newcomer Amazon, further enraging Canal+ because they had paid far more for their smaller package of games under a licence with beIN.

The Vivendi-backed pay TV operator filed lawsuits against the LFP, and people close to the group say that Canal+ and Vivendi’s owner billionaire Vincent Bolloré still hold a grudge over the episode. Canal+ declined to comment.

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The double hit of the pandemic and the collapsed media deal left some French football clubs close to bankruptcy, and the league warned of dire consequences if it failed to find outside investment.

“If we aren’t able to bring in new money to bounce back, the French Championship will become like the Slovenian Championship”, Labrune told a committee of French senators in 2021.

A few months later, the league agreed to sell a 13 per cent stake in a new entity responsible for all LFP’s commercial operations to CVC for €1.5bn. Upon agreeing the deal, CVC promised to “put its expertise, experience and relationships at the service of the LFP’s commercial subsidiary and support its business development ambitions”.

Labrune declared then that French football had been “saved” as clubs received an immediate cash injection. 

But now French professional football is once again in trouble. With just over 10 weeks to go until the new season kicks off, clubs are increasingly fearful of being left in the lurch without a media deal.

Brest’s French defender Kenny Lala, right, attempts a bicycle kick during the French L1 football match between Stade Brestois 29 (Brest) and FC Metz at Stade Francis-Le Ble
The double hit of the pandemic and a collapsed media rights deal left some French football clubs close to bankruptcy © Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images

The LFP has mooted the idea of creating its own TV channel to carry live fixtures as a way of bypassing reticent broadcasters, according to several people with knowledge of the situation. However, analysts and media executives cast such a move as risky given the short amount of time before football restarts in the summer.  

With little visibility on future TV revenue, some French teams are unable to access bank lending and are preparing for a fire sale of players warned a senior executive at one top-tier club. “Clubs are desperate for money”, said another. “I don’t know how CVC allowed things to get so screwed up.”  

The plight of French football has not gone unnoticed by President Emmanuel Macron, who has discussed the situation directly with some club owners, according to people familiar with the matter. A visit to Paris by the Emir of Qatar in February also stoked speculation that state-owned beIN could be persuaded to step in.

However, people close to the process have cautioned that the Qatari broadcaster was unlikely to come to the league’s rescue, and would not seek a broadcast deal on its own.

“Domestic rights come with a lot of baggage. It’s a very political battle”, said one person involved in the discussions. 

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The situation is complicated by the fact that beIN chair Nasser Al-Khelaïfi is also the chair of Paris Saint-Germain, the reigning French champions. Almost a quarter of Ligue 1’s TV money goes to PSG, yet it accounts for just 7 per cent of the club’s total income. For some of the smaller teams in the league, domestic broadcasting accounts for more than 60 per cent of revenue. 

Excluding money from player transfers, clubs in Ligue 1 and 2 suffered combined operating losses of €1.05bn in the 2022/23 season on revenue of €2.7bn, according to figures from French football’s financial regulator. Fees earned from selling players reduced losses to €300mn. 

The vast majority of clubs have given their backing to the CVC deal, both at the initial vote in 2022 and again last November. All clubs received money from the investment, although the amounts vary.

Yet it has still proved divisive in French football. Some club executives have questioned what, beyond the initial cash infusion, the firm has added and how its money has been distributed. Le Havre president Jean-Michel Roussier, a former Mediapro executive, told French senators that the deal was the “heist of the century” and has sued to have it cancelled.

Christophe Bouchet, former president of Olympique de Marseille, has described the deal as “catastrophic” and claims that many of those running clubs failed to read the agreement before signing up to it. 

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi
PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, who is also chair of broadcaster beIN © Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The French league deal is one of several sports investments made by CVC in recent years, alongside moves into rugby, cricket, tennis and Spanish football. The firm had been in the running to invest in the German football league earlier this year, before widespread fan protests forced the entire process to be abandoned. Its investment in Premiership Rugby has also drawn scrutiny after three of the league’s 13 clubs collapsed last year. 

LFP, CVC and beIN declined to comment.

But people close to CVC and to LFP downplayed the bleakness of the situation in France, noting that the league’s other commercial deals — covering things such as betting data and sponsorship — had all been renewed at significantly increased rates. LFP recently appointed sports marketing agency Infront to handle the international rights sale, raising hopes of a quick deal, while the expectation remains that a domestic deal will get done before the season starts, the people said. 

But French football faces another challenge: a lack of reasons for viewers to tune in. Following the departures of Lionel Messi and Neymar from PSG last summer, Kylian Mbappé last week confirmed his move to European champions Real Madrid. The French league no longer has a global star, while the competition is increasingly dull — PSG have won the French league 10 times in the past 12 years.

Additional reporting by Samuel Agini

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