Nasser al-Khelafi, a Man with a Vision

Hi all,
When QSI (Qatar Sports Investments) bought a 70 per cent ownership stake in French football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) earlier this year, La Parisienne newspaper ran an article introducing the new man at the helm under the headline: ‘Le mysterieux Nasser al-Khelaifi.’

It’s a line that needs no translation and the article described a man who has largely shunned the limelight, is hard-working, respectful of his staff and equally at home in a hand-tailored business suit as the Qatari national dress.

It’s been quite a year for 37-year-old al-Khelaifi who, in addition to being chairman of QSI and de facto owner of PSG, is also head of Al Jazeera Sport, the Doha-headquartered broadcaster which has ambitions that extend the tiny Gulf peninsula and appears to be inching ever-closer to the epicentre of world sport.

In May, Al Jazeera bought the international broadcast rights to France’s Ligue 1 for just under €200 million, before a month later pledging €360 million for the right to show two live Ligue 1 games a week domestically – deals that have helped earn Nasser al-Khelaifi the SportBusiness International Sports Innovator 2011 title.

Next year the broadcaster has plans to acquire or launch a channel in France to screen Ligue 1 football, as well as plans to conclude further deals around the world that suggests a move into the US may be on the cards. After that, who knows?

Al-Khelaifi, who is immaculately connected within Qatar and beyond, has been at Al Jazeera Sport since 2002 and rose through the ranks to become first general manager and now president. In that time he has overseen the expansion of a service that now delivers 16 channels, including a recently-launched sports news channel, to the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

Between them the channels deliver a rich diet of all that is best in world sport to a regional audience hungry for action, particularly from the world’s best football leagues. Right now Al Jazeera holds regional rights for Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, and Ligue 1 from France along with England’s two domestic cups and a raft of UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Running this show appears to be an ideal role for a man who has sport in his veins. Al-Khelaifi was captain of the Qatar tennis team – he was the country’s number one for eight years – and played in the Davis Cup. He also “loves football, the same as everybody else in Qatar” and says that playing top-level sport has had a significant influence on the way he does business.

“Sport means a lot to me and my time in tennis taught me a lot about being competitive while at the same time respecting opponents and learning how to deal with them,” he says. “Being involved in sport internationally also helped me learn to be open-minded to different cultures and about how to plan, set objectives and achieve your targets.

“Perhaps above all sport and business are linked in that you have to believe in yourself and the team you work with. I admire a lot of people in both sport and in business and try to learn from them. In many ways I am still a student as I learn from different people every day.”

Al Jazeera is not, of course, the first broadcaster to launch sports channels on foreign soil – ESPN and others have been at it for years. But the buzz around Al Jazeera is to do with its potential to make or break markets on the back of Qatar’s wider ambitions in sport and the sums of money which can be made available to take advantage of the right opportunities as they arise.

It was back in June that Al Jazeera surprised the watching world by acquiring the international rights for Ligue 1 in a six-year deal from 2012-13 to 2017-18 which, at a stroke, moved it into the rights trading business.

Intriguingly, Al Jazeera’s deal for domestic Ligue 1 rights from 2012-13 to 2015-16, a deal which allows it to show two matches every week, will either require it to launch its own channel from scratch or acquire and rebrand the ailing Orange Sport channel.

The big question for everyone in the broadcasting industry though is whether Al Jazeera’s moves in the French market are the first of many assaults on various key territories, both in Europe and further afield.

Al-Khelaifi, however, is not about to join in the speculation anytime soon. “Today the idea is to focus on France,” was his sole response to a direct question about future international ambitions.

But expert observers of the sector read far more into it and their analysis is informed by another deal this year in which Al Jazeera acquired the North American rights for the 2014 South American FIFA World Cup qualifiers in a deal worth $20 million.

Analysts say Al Jazeera has long harboured an opportunity to break into the US market and say that this deal could be the key to opening it up.

The top-level international content would provide the foundations for a football channel, perhaps aimed at North America’s huge Hispanic market, which could then be complemented by other content from a growing international portfolio.

It is an assessment that has been given greater credibility of late by suggestions that Al Jazeera has expressed an interest in buying Miami-based Gol TV.

The emergence of a serious new player on the global media rights scene would certainly be welcomed by rights owners, all of whom have been looking for something or someone to fuel a further wave of revenue growth. [Source: Sports Business International]

Karl Lusbec