By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Qatar-based beIN Sports said on Friday it had decided not to renew a contract for the rights to broadcast Formula One in the Middle East and North Africa as a consequence of piracy in the region.
The previous five-year deal expired at the end of last season. The 21-race 2019 world championship starts in Australia on March 17.
BeIN Sports, which also has the local rights to the Premier League and other major football leagues and tournaments, has urged sports bodies to take legal action in Saudi Arabia against illegal broadcasts.
The television channel 'BeoutQ' emerged in 2017 after Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a diplomatic and trade boycott of Qatar, accusing the tiny Gulf state of supporting terrorism, which Doha denies.
BeoutQ is widely available in Saudi Arabia but Riyadh says it is not based there and that the authorities are committed to fighting piracy.
It is unclear who owns or operates the channel.
"A rights holder’s stance on beoutQ’s piracy -- in other words whether they’re taking legal action, making a public stand, and doing everything within their power to combat the industrial-scale theft of their rights -- is a critical factor that we’re now considering when bidding," beIN MENA managing director Tom Keaveny said in a statement.
Keaveny said beIN, a pay-TV broadcaster, paid huge sums for media rights and had been warning for nearly two years of the commercial impact of piracy. BeIN would pay less for rights that cannot be protected, he said.
Formula One, which holds lucrative races in Saudi regional allies Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, declined to comment on the suggestion that it had not done enough to combat beoutQ.
The sport, owned since 2017 by U.S.-based Liberty Media, said last June that it was investigating alleged illegal broadcasts of its content in the Middle East and North Africa.
"Formula One takes intellectual property infringement of this nature extremely seriously, we are looking into the issue and those that are involved and will take appropriate action," it said at the time.
A Formula One insider said the beIN contract was originally a sub-license agreement with MP&Silva, a sports marketing and media rights company that went into administration late last year.
The overall contribution, in percentage terms, to Formula One's annual broadcast revenues of the beIN deal was put in the mid-single digits and a replacement broadcast deal was close to being finalised.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)