BeIn Sport will kick off its pair of soccer channels next month. The question is how many affiliates will be in its distribution net.
Armed with the rights to three top European leagues -- Spain's top circuit La Liga; France's premier division, La Ligue Un (English-only); and Italy's Serie A; among other soccer properties -- beIn Sport is targeting an Aug. 15 kickoff for both English- and Spanish-language services.
They add to a growing roster of U.S. outlets presenting international soccer matches and garnering increased ratings. But they also come at a time when distributors are looking to contain rising program costs.
Miami-headquartered Imagina US, which is handling distribution and providing technical support for the launch of the multiplatform sports, continues to negotiate with potential affiliates and is sanguine that a couple will be on board at launch.
Antonio Briceño, vice president of affiliate sales for Imagina US, noted that "nothing is absolute until it is put to paper, but we continue to negotiate. We're 99% sure there will be at least one distributor at launch, and two continues to be the goal. And we expect more over time."
Briceno also said that beIn Sport's launch is on schedule, relative to staffing, operations and production. When beIn Sports announced its presence in May, it said it was eyeing an Aug. 1 bow. Briceno, though, said it was always the plan to begin testing the signal on July 15 and that the feed for the English and Spanish-language channels would be split on Aug. 1. He said that would give operators some time to fine-tune any reception issues, ahead of the networks' Aug. 15 rollout.
A survey of leading U.S. distributors last week indicated that some were engaged in negotiations with Imagina US, but none had struck any deals. One executive at a large provider, though, said the company had not heard anything meaningful from Imagina US.
"There have been some phone conversations, but nothing formal. There not negotiating with us," said the industry veteran. "Please send the deck. There hasn't been anything in writing."
Briceno disagreed with that characterization. "We've sent term sheets, with conditions to all major distributors," he said. "We've not been engaged with all of the small operators, but certainly been talking to all of the major players."
Sources in the U.S. TV sports community said there was some question as to whether beIn Sports actually holds all of the La Liga rights in the U.S. They say Spanish-media company Prisa TV is currently speaking with sports agencies about repping the rights for a number of the teams here, with a decision perhaps coming as early as this week.
La Liga comprises 20 teams, including world-renowned sides FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose respective rosters include Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the globe's two top players.
Briceno said he had been focused on the operational side and was not aware of any specific complications that could put rights beIn Sport's U.S. rights to La Liga in jeopardy. He noted that every season over the past 12 years there has been some off-season challenge to Mediapro's team rights. He added, though, that in order to televise La Liga matches, rights to both the home and away teams must be in the fold. As such, should there be any changes, there would have to be another set of negotiations with Mediapro.
Imagina group -- the holding company of the two largest Spanish content producers, Grupo Globomedia and Mediapro, which is also engaged in rights negotiations -- is the majority shareholder in Imagina US. The Miami-headquartered company's management team operates autonomously.
One TV executive contacted last week said he was certain there were provisions in any carriage contract relative to the level of beIN Sports' rights to La Liga. "That would certainly be material," he said.
Briceno said beIn Sports has bolstered its rights stable in recent months, adding the Copa Italia, Super Copa Italia and Capital One Cup (formerly the Carling Cup) competitions, as well as the Football League Championship, England's second division circuit behind the Barclays Premier League. The networks also hold the rights to the Copa America tournament, as well as South American World Cup qualifiers ahead of FIFA's 2014 tournament in Brazil.
The panoply of rights that beIN Sport has secured were previously held and aired on Gol TV, ESPN2, Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Deportes and Univision.
Briceno said the "marching orders" remained the same relative to beIn Sport's plans "not to sublicense any of the rights to the three major league properties." He said there might be some flexibility with the additional rights that have been acquired.
Although beIN Sports' game plan still calls to stream channels to authenticated subscribers, the services will not be available at launch.
The Imagina US executive noted that beIn Sports's will anchor its Saturday and Sunday coverage with Express Weekend, a show that will air over the course of eight hours, connecting to the different stadiums where matches will be played on those days, and serving up previews, highlights and analysis.
"We're going to present football in a new and exciting way," said Briceno.