On many Saturdays, general manager Stephanie Henry opens the Fado Irish Pub in Center City at 7 a.m. for a crush of screaming, quaffing soccer fans looking to catch live European soccer on the telly. Henry says the soccer-centric bar “gets slammed” on the day of big games, such as those between Barcelona and Real Madrid, known worldwide as el clasico.
To keep patrons happy, Henry tunes Fado’s 10 televisions to soccer, and closely tracks the networks’ offerings. She bought an NBC app for $50 to access an additional live Premier League game and will stream more games when she can. “Anything legal,” she says.
But Fado soccer fans often grouse about how they can’t watch the European soccer games over the beIN Sports channel, a Comcast/NBC competitor. Comcast limits customers to one beIN game at a time, and doesn’t include access to the channel’s app, which would open up beIN’s games across Spain, Italy, and France.
“I feel bad for the Spanish league and the Italian league guys who can only see one game,” Henry said. “I’m with them. I get it.”
Qatari-owned beIN Sports — which has spent billions globally on television rights for European soccer — raises that criticism in a complaint filed at the Federal Communications Commission. The six-year-old network says that Comcast Corp. is seeking to quash it so the Philadelphia-based firm can boost ratings for its NBC Sports Network — which televises the heavily marketed English Premier League.
BeIN, meanwhile, owns the rights to what many soccer purists consider the better league: Spain’s La Liga, whose dynamic players include Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
“Always the No. 1 complaint is that people can’t get beIN,” said Christopher Harris, editor of Worldsoccertalk.com and the recipient of thousands of those fan complaints. “They keep hitting a brick wall with Comcast.”
The average viewership for a Premier League game in the United States is about 500,000 viewers, while La Liga’s is 150,000, Harris said, noting that some of that difference is because many people can’t get the La Liga games on Comcast. BeIN also owns the U.S. rights to Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1.
The beIN complaint against Comcast recalls those filed over the last decade by the NFL Network and Tennis Channel, which both claimed that Comcast denied them bigger audiences and richer revenue streams.
The beIN complaint could have global ramifications. Comcast has made an unsolicited $31 billion bid for the Sky satellite-TV service, which is based in the U.K. and owns the Premier League rights there.
So if Comcast can close on the Sky deal — a big if — the U.S. cable giant could control Premier League TV rights on both sides of the Atlantic. BeIN operates in the Middle East and Europe, in addition to the U.S.
BeIN said in its complaint that Comcast forces its customers to pay extra for the games — $5 a month for a sports package, or $10 a month for a Latino package — while it doesn’t do the same for the NBCSN cable channel, which televises the Premier League.
Comcast also won’t distribute the English- and Spanish-language beIN sports channel in high-definition as other pay-TV operators do, beIN says. Comcast instead downgrades beIN’s signal to standard definition, beIN says. And Xfinity subscribers can’t authenticate themselves for the beIN app, which offers nine additional channels of live soccer game from La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1.
“We have so much content that happens at the same time, this is the only way to offer it live,” said Antonio Briceno, deputy managing director for beIN Sports in the U.S. and Canada. “You are depriving your fans of 70 percent of the content you are paying for.
“It’s hard to understand. I don’t know if they have an agenda of their rights versus our rights but at the end of the day, we are not serving our customers.”
Comcast, however, said very few people watch beIN’s European-centric soccer and scoffs at the notion that it would undermine beIN to boost its NBC-related cable channels. The company dismisses beIN’s complaint as a negotiating tactic over a new TV distribution agreement.
Preliminary viewership analyses showed that “Comcast is likely already losing money from its beIN carriage relative to the cost of not carrying them,” Comcast said in its 306-page response to beIN.
But Comcast is legally exposed to FCC enforcement action if beIN can show that Comcast has favored Comcast-owned NBC cable channels over others. Comcast is not allowed to treat its own channels better than those it does not own, according to federal law.
To win at the FCC, beIN also must show that its channels are similar to NBC Sports Network, a 24-hour sports channel, and the Spanish-language NBC Universo, also owned by Comcast.
Comcast says they’re not, calling beIN a niche soccer-focused channel. In 2015, beIN televised about one-third of the live soccer games in the U.S., while NBCUniversal cable networks televised about 12 percent of the live soccer games, Comcast said in its response at the FCC.
Soccer accounted for 55 percent of the content on the English-language beIN and 72 percent of the programming on the Spanish-language version. The comparable percentages for the NBC Sports Network and Universo are 10 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement that its treatment of beIN “is consistent with how it is carried by most other cable and satellite providers. Unfortunately, beIN Sports has demanded substantial increases in fees and carriage that make no business sense for our company and our customers. Rather than continue to engage in reasonable commercial negotiations for a renewal of its current agreement, beIN Sports chose to file this complaint, which is completely without merit.”
Comcast offers beIN in high-definition in some cable markets and the app itself was not part of the carriage agreement, Fitzmaurice said. She also said that beIN has made its games available on other platforms so that fans can find the games there.
David Conn, a sports journalist at the Guardian and author of The Fall of the House of FIFA about the financial scandals at the global soccer group, says he’s not surprised that beIN and Comcast are duking it out.
“In Europe and increasingly globally, soccer — football, we call it — is perhaps the major prime content for broadcasters and digital in the battle for peoples’ eyes and attention and money,” Conn said.
“The U.S. is seen as a key emerging market for soccer,” Conn said, though he admits that “it’s taking a lot longer than people thought it would.”
NBC has acquired the U.S. rights to the Premier League until 2022 as part of a six-year, $1 billion agreement, one indication of the big-money stakes for European soccer in the U.S. market.
As for whether the Qatari-owned sports network would have the stamina to take on Comcast, with its cadre of Washington lawyers and lobbyists, Conn said that beIN would not be intimidated.
Comcast also has taken off the gloves. In its response to beIN at the FCC, Comcast has made references to Swiss corruption investigations into Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team and chief executive at beIN Sport’s parent firm in Qatar.
The Swiss attorney general’s office opened a case in March 2017 against Al-Khelaifi, former FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke and an unidentified third businessman on suspicion of bribery, fraud, and criminal mismanagement.
Comcast said “this created even more uncertainty regarding beIN’s business plans, especially given Comcast’s past experience with beIN’s affiliate, Al Jazeera America, which abruptly shut down in 2016.”
BeIN’s Briceno said a yellow card should be called on Comcast for citing the European corruption probe into the FCC complaint, noting it’s “completely unrelated to any claims we are making in the United States.” He added that beIN has “fully cooperated” with the Swiss investigation.
Sitting at a table in Fado’s, all this wrangling does not surprise Henry. She hadn’t heard about the regulatory and legal dispute between Comcast and beIN but she has had her customers complain mightily over the years. And she would like both sides to make nice and offer more games.