- AFC says decision was guided by new challenges dictated by the ‘rapidly evolving post-pandemic commercial environment’
- Federation may also face legal action from Asian clubs regarding PIF’s ownership of three AFC Champions League teams
FMA, then known as DDMC Fortis, successfully won the soccer association’s commercial and media rights in 2018 after beating out the AFC’s previous partner Lagardère Sports, as well as agency giants Infront and IMG in a competitive tender process.
The agreement, which began in 2021, was said to be worth US$4 billion at the time and was set to expire in 2028. However, the AFC has now confirmed that the partnership has come to an end, with the federation currently working to appoint a replacement for the cycle’s remaining years.
‘The AFC’s decision takes into careful consideration the new challenges and opportunities presented by the rapidly evolving post-pandemic commercial environment,’ the association said in a statement.
‘The end of the exclusive partnership with FMA enables the AFC to explore new opportunities and collaborations that are better aligned with the current conditions, while securing its financial future for the long-term success of Asian football.’
A deal the federation has struck this week was the awarding of AFC Champions League rights to East Africa-based broadcaster Azam TV, which will show the club competition in eight countries through a sub-licensing deal agreed with PC Plus Group.
Meanwhile, the AFC is reportedly bracing itself for possible legal action from several elite Asian soccer clubs. According to the Guardian, the teams contend that the federation has seemingly ignored its own regulations on multi-club ownership, as three Saudi Pro League outfits all owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) prepare to compete in this year’s AFC Champions League.
As it stands, Al Hilal, which boast Brazilian star Neymar on their roster, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr and Al Ittihad, the club of French striker Karim Benzema, are all set to play in the 2023/24 edition of the competition, which kicks off later this month. All three teams were taken over by PIF in June.
The AFC’s rules currently state that clubs with the same owner are forbidden from competing in the tournament if they have more than a 30 per cent stake based on revenue. Its club licensing regulations also maintain that owners of one club are banned from possessing ‘a majority of the shareholders’ voting rights of any other club participating in the same competition’.
In addition, article 16 of the confederation’s statutes outlines that no party can ‘exercise third-party control in any manner whatsoever over more than one club or group whenever the integrity of any match or competition could be jeopardised’.
A possible ban is on the cards, should it be determined that there is a ‘material risk’ that this could ‘jeopardise the integrity of an AFC club competition and/or any match’, with the three Saudi clubs needing to prove why their co-existence will not present such a risk to the tournament.
This has caused several Asian clubs outside of Saudi Arabia to ask the AFC why it has opted to overlook its own rules, with a legal challenge thought to be among the options under consideration.
Unfortunately for FMA, Covid-19 and subsequent worsening market conditions meant it was unable to execute its initial vision to strengthen Asian soccer.
In particular, China’s slow recovery from the pandemic meant it had to withdraw as host of the 2023 Asian Cup, with Qatar to now stage the postponed event next January. Over the last year, the AFC has also seen its rights deal with Eleven terminated early, with no replacement broadcaster yet be lined up to take on the rights to its club competitions and the upcoming Asian Cup.
With its flagship national team tournament months away, the AFC will need to act quickly to secure a partner that can help land tournament sponsors and rights deals.
Meanwhile, the association’s closer ties to Saudi Arabia appear to be under more scrutiny from the rest of the continent. The Guardian reports that AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa has been making stronger efforts to keep the country’s representatives happy, with other Asian outfits said to suspect the Saudis have used speculation about joining the Uefa Champions League to put more pressure on the AFC.
While City Football Group (CFG), for example, owns controlling stakes in India’s Mumbai City and Australia’s Melbourne City, the AFC found there was no issue to resolve, as they are highly unlikely to play each other given their geographic locations.
However, the trio of Saudi clubs all play in the competition’s ‘West Zone’ and could face each other in the last-16 stage, with rival teams now said to be fearing for the Champions League’s integrity.