Mediapro wins round in soccer dispute


MADRID -- Spanish media giant Mediapro scored a victory over rival Sogecable in the ongoing soccer war this weekend, with the two clashing over rights to the country's biggest teams and leaving viewers guessing until the last second if they would see their teams play and on which channel.

In the end, Mediapro triumphed by airing both of the matches of Spain's most important teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, on its free-to-air national channel La Sexta, trumping Sogecable's offer of Barcelona-Athletic de Bilbao, offered in pay-per-view on its satellite platform Digital Plus.

Mediapro's hardball tactics threaten Sogecable's cash cow, pay TV and video-on-demand soccer rights, which most analysts agree is the natural market for the soccer league rights.

Last week, the war raged to a new level with accusations of unfulfilled payments flying. Fans and the Spanish soccer league were caught in the middle, with authorities announcing they would alter the games' schedules, opening the door for the broadcast of successive matches on one channel.

On Friday, Mediapro argued in a statement that it would deem any broadcast by Sogecable of five of Spain's top teams -- including the Barcelona-Atheltic de Bilbao and the Villareal-Real Madrid matches -- as "pirating" and that it would take "legitimate defensive measures."

Sogecable did offer the Barcelona game to its subscribers on pay-per-view, provoking the Mediapro reaction to use the program "Minuto-resultado" -- normally used for live connections to a variety of matches -- to offer the whole Barcelona match for free.

Five minutes into the Barcelona game, La Sexta announced it would offer the Real Madrid match for free two hours later, once again undermining Sogecable, which had offered it to its subscribers on pay-per-view.

La Sexta's 21.8% audience share for the Villareal-Real Madrid match gave it a clear lead over the other channels, crystallizing why the rights are so important.

No one was immediately available at Sogecable or Mediapro Monday for comment.

The tense situation prompted top government officials to offer to mediate.

Mediapro bought the rights to 39 of Spain's 42 professional soccer teams last year. Last year, La Sexta aired one match on Saturday nights, while Digital Plus held pay TV rights. Sogecable's free-to-air channel, Cuatro, is barred from competing for the Saturday night match by anti-trust laws.