Photo Credit: Fenerbahce Twitter
Turkish football’s key domestic and international broadcaster, beIN Sports, stated its intention to commence legal action against Fenerbahce which in turn might jeopardize their financial future in Turkish Football. This is the result of several months of drama involving a bewildering campaign, in which there have been insinuations that beIN has manipulated VAR decisions against the club, and a senior beIN female employee being subjected to aggressive attacks on Turkish television and social media.
On Sunday, matters came to a head when Fenerbahce’s players, including January signing Mesut Ozil, warmed up in T-shirts that supported the logo “beFAIR”. These T-shirts were specially commissioned by the club’s hierarchy as a play on words against beIN Sports, the Qatar-owned broadcaster that holds domestic and international rights to show Turkish top-flight football. Over several weeks, the beIN logo has been reimagined by the club as “beFAIR”, with the inference being that beIN is treating Fenerbahce unfairly. The club’s players, including Ozil, wear “beFAIR” T-shirts and the advertising boards around the stadium, in addition to 3D carpets on the grass, have reinforced the message.
Even as the lead broadcaster in Turkish football, beIN claims to have been blocked from attending Ozil’s unveiling at Fenerbahce. Fenerbahce players have also attempted to wear the “beFAIR” T-shirts while being interviewed on beIN’s own network. Sources in Turkey say that beIN is prepared to air criticism of its coverage but not the distorted logo. As such, beIN will not allow Fenerbahce staff or players to conduct interviews while wearing the “beFAIR” jerseys. BeIN Sports, on the next day, stated its intention to sue over an alleged breach of intellectual property (the distortion of the beIN logo). Papers will be filed in the coming days in Istanbul, with beIN seeking an injunction from the Turkish court. A beIN spokesperson said: “We have seen the remarkable images and campaign breaching our intellectual property (IP), which only harms the whole of Turkish football. We will take whatever legal action necessary to protect our rights. As we have shown before, we take an uncompromising approach to the protection of IP, not least because it is the economic foundation of football.” The row between the two parties is particularly sensitive as beIN is now into the final 18 months of a five-year deal that began in 2017 and will end in 2022. For Turkish football, this contract was initially worth $500 million (£355 million), until a downturn in the Turkish economy, along with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; saw the terms of the deal first reduced to $410 million for the 2019-20 season and then $370 million for the current campaign.
Yet it remains a considerable and vital source of income for a nation whose major football clubs are riddled with debt. Fenerbahce, widely reported to be more than £400 million in the red, have spent the last couple of years asking for supporters to help fund the club by sending a text message with a small donation to the “FenerOL” campaign. For a few days following Ozil’s signing in January, this became the “MesutOL” campaign. Against this backdrop, Fenerbahce’s president Ali Koc is now embroiled in a bizarre battle with the broadcaster whose funding keeps Turkish football’s head above water. The television rights tender will be launched by the Turkish Football Federation later this year and it is understood that beIN has major reservations about extending the deal for a league where one of the major clubs engages in these kinds of attacks against a key broadcaster.
In recent months, Fenerbahce have appeared to question the integrity and the neutrality of beIN Sport as a broadcaster. This includes the suggestion that beIN has intentionally provided camera angles that would damage Fenerbahce when VAR decisions are made by officials, the allegation that beIN has removed “positive” Fenerbahce phases of play from highlights packages, and a purported belief that beIN has instructed their commentators to criticise Fenerbahce players. BeIN denies these allegations by saying it has not manipulated the highlights to omit Fenerbahce successes and also insists that all camera angles are provided by the league’s official feed, rather than the broadcaster. In addition, beIN has been forced to deny that it provides less money to Fenerbahce than is handed out to rival clubs. The broadcaster pays the money into a central pot at the Turkish top-flight’s headquarters and the money is then redistributed between the clubs by the league itself.
Perhaps the most baffling development came in January. As matches are played out behind closed doors, beIN has followed other broadcasters around the world and offered viewers the choice of artificial crowd noise. However, it emerged that one Turkish side’s crowd noise included a derogatory chant against Fenerbahce supporters. When this was flagged to beIN, an internal investigation led to two staff members being fired and the company issued a public apology to Fenerbahce. Fenerbahce issued a statement on their club website, saying: “Since the beginning of the season, we have warned the broadcaster many times at the highest level for its decisions and approaches that are out of line, and we have communicated to them that our only expectation is an ‘objective, fair, impartial policy. With this latest agenda, it has become clear that the steps taken against Fenerbahce by the broadcaster have now been deliberately brought to an unimaginable level and will not be able to recover after this moment.”
The following day, Koc warned his club’s supporters to “be ready” to challenge the perceived injustice. The apology from beIN was published on Instagram at 19.05 local time, which caused a new issue altogether. In the corridors of power at Fenerbahce, this is believed to have been interpreted as a slight on the club because fierce rivals Galatasaray was founded in the year 1905. The beIN Sport statement had been written by a public relations professional in London and sources say it had been delayed in time only due to a typo.
This spawned other, more sinister developments, which involve Hande Sumertas, beIN’s television rights director, who moved into her role in late 2020 after previously working at Galatasaray. Sumertas regularly trends on Twitter in Turkey, with Fenerbahce supporters suggesting that her mere presence within the media company is proof of an agenda against their own team. Sources close to Sumertas say that she has suspended her Twitter account on more than one occasion, requires a personal chauffeur and security to travel home safely and has even considered moving home.
On Sunday, following Ozil’s appearance in the jersey, beIN’s patience snapped. The broadcaster’s threatened legal action is an extraordinary development, pitting one of Turkey’s most famous clubs against Turkish football’s prime stream of revenue. It is akin to Sky Sports, for example, trying to take Manchester United or Liverpool to court.
In Turkey, there is now concern among rival clubs that beIN could walk away. The broadcaster has already shown it will not negotiate domestic rights deals where they do not see any value for money after refusing to bail out French football earlier this year. Sources close to several Turkish sides who compete in European competition have told The Athletic that Turkish football’s financial future has been placed into peril by the actions of one club. An emergency meeting between beIN and the Turkish Football Federation was scheduled for Tuesday and Fenerbahce have been approached for comment.Now, however, the case is heading for the courtroom and the ramifications may extend beyond Fenerbahce and into every boardroom at the top of Turkish football.