Drahi's Altice Buys English Soccer Broadcast Rights for France

  • Billionaire Drahi pushes into content after acquisition spree
  • Altice beats out current rights holder Canal Plus of Vivendi

Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV won the rights to broadcast English Premier League soccer in France and Monaco, beating Vivendi SA’s pay-TV business Canal Plus and betting more aggressively on sports to attract customers to his phone and cable offerings.

In France, customers of Altice’s phone and cable provider Numericable-SFR SAS will be able to watch all of the matches in the league, whose teams include Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, starting in August. The contract runs for three seasons, the company said Thursday, without disclosing a price. Altice paid about 300 million euros ($317.5 million), according to a person familiar with the matter.

The rights purchase signals that Drahi is prepared to spend to win cable and phone subscribers after building out his empire through acquisitions. For Vivendi’s Canal Plus, which currently broadcasts English soccer in France, losing out to Altice is a “serious blow” to its dwindling portfolio of sports rights, Kepler Cheuvreux analysts said in a note.

France’s rugby match against New Zealand was the most watched item on French television in October, according to data by Mediametrie. Sports and movies have traditionally been Canal Plus’ flagship offerings to sell its 39.90-euro-a-month subscription.

Shares of Altice rose 2.9 percent to 14.41 euros at 12:50 pm. in Amsterdam. Vivendi rose 0.2 percent to 19.99 euros in Paris.

Bollore’s Challenges

Drahi’s appetite for sports rights is the latest in a mounting pile of challenges for Vivendi Chairman Vincent Bollore as he seeks to turn around Canal Plus by revamping the broadcaster’s management and restructuring programs. Vivendi shares fell the most in more than three years in Paris on Nov. 11 after it unveiled plans to invest heavily to revive the pay-TV unit.

A Canal Plus representative confirmed the broadcaster had bid for the rights, declining to comment further on the auction or the company’s content strategy.

In the past three years, new competition from Al-Jazeera’s beIN Sports in France has forced Canal to put bigger checks on the table to win rights. Meanwhile Drahi in the past two years has become one of the most acquisitive telecommunications tycoons as he’s bulked up in Europe, and is now eyeing media assets as he seeks to leverage his carriers as distributors of content.

The purchase of the rights also shows that Drahi’s French business is more aggressively seeking to maintain customers and boost users’ monthly bills. Numericable-SFR reported falling sales for the third quarter amid competition from rivals such as Orange SA and signaled it’s picking up marketing spending to attract subscribers.

“The convergence of our telecom assets with exclusive content is core to our long-term strategy,” Altice Chief Operating Officer Michel Combes said in Thursday’s statement.

Drahi has been buying telecommunications assets from Portugal to the U.S. in a bet he can revamp their business and seek synergies to increase earnings. At SFR, Drahi’s team has thus far been focused on cutting costs after merging it with cable provider Numericable, and this year hired former Alcatel-Lucent SA operating chief Combes to help.

The French rights deal also marks more revenue for what is already one of sport’s richest championships. In February, Sky Plc and BT Group Plc agreed to pay a record 5.14 billion pounds ($7.8 billion) for the U.K. rights to broadcast English Premier League soccer, an increase of about 70 percent.

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