By Leila Abboud and Gwénaëlle Barzic
PARIS (Reuters) - Al Jazeera, best known for its Middle Eastern news coverage, aims to become a global powerhouse in sports broadcasting over the next five years, its director told Reuters.
The Qatar-based broadcaster will launch its new sports channel dubbed 'beIN Sport' in France next week and plans for two more channels in the United States in August.
It is also currently weighing whether to bid for the UK rights to the English Premier League, said Nasser al-Khelaifi, director of Al Jazeera Sports, in an interview.
"There is a lot of opportunity in the world for sports channels," said al-Khelaifi on Thursday.
"We are going to look at all the opportunities in Europe. We are going to study each market one by one, and if there is room for another channel, then we will go."
The moves are part of a broader effort by the emirate of Qatar to burnish its sports credentials ahead of hosting the soccer World Cup in 2022.
Flush with oil and gas wealth, the Qatar Sports Investment fund has also bought the Paris St. Germain soccer team and the Spanish soccer team in Malaga.
Al Jazeera is no novice at sports coverage. In the past decade, it has built the most popular sports network in the Middle East and Africa, with two free and 15 pay channels, plus an English version with a dozen commentators and producers.
The question now is whether it can replicate that success abroad with local language channels in Europe and the U.S.
To do so, it will have to take on established pay-TV groups in each market such as News Corp affiliate BSkyB and Vivendi's Canal+, shell out big money for rights, and overcome its lack of a distribution network.
Both Sky and Canal+ have large subscriber bases built on broad offers featuring exclusive movies, TV series, and sports. They control their distribution via satellite, while Al Jazeera will have to pay commissions to distributors to get its channels on the air.
Al Jazeera's push into international sports broadcasting will soon be put to the test in France. The French 'beIN Sport' channels are aimed at the mass market and will cost 11 euros a month, featuring top-flight French and European soccer, golf, basketball, and some of the London Olympics.
The French channels will compete for customers with France's pay TV leader Canal+ and be distributed by cable and telecom operators to 14 million households.
Two more 'beIN Sport' channels are planned for the United States in August, including one in Spanish with a heavy dose of soccer from Latin America, Italy and Spain.
The aim there is to focus on international sports instead of taking on local giants including ESPN and Fox TV in marquee American sports like baseball, said al-Khelaifi.
"The rationale there is completely different than what we are doing in France," he said. "It's not about competing with ESPN or Fox, it's more of a niche channel featuring international sports."
The next major choice the Qatar-backed group faces will be whether to put big money on the table to bid for UK rights to the English Premier League and take on England's pay-TV leader BSkyB on its home turf.
The Premier League, which enjoys the most lucrative television deals in world soccer, got 1.78 billion pounds ($2.9 billion) from Sky and ESPN for live rights under the current agreement, which has one more season to run.
It is now seeking a new three-year deal to start from 2013-14, and has already sent out its request for bids. It's expected to choose winners of the auction in June.
Asked whether Al Jazeera would bid, al-Khelaifi said the company was studying the issue and hadn't yet made a decision.
"We received the tender as others have and we are looking at it," he said. "We are studying whether there is room for another sports channel there."
Darren Tulet, an English sports journalist who was poached from Canal+ to be a presenter on Al Jazeera's new French channels, acknowledged that the UK market would be a challenge.
"There is a reason why the company chose France as the first country to go after: there was no real sports-only channel here. In England the situation is very different because of the strength of Sky," said Tulet.
Asked whether Al Jazeera would try to pip France's Canal+ to buy the rights to broadcast the English Premier League in France, Tulet demurred with a smile.
"Obviously the English Premiere League is the most watched soccer league on the planet. So you can imagine that we would be very interested in it."
(Reporting by Leila Abboud and Gwenaelle Barzic; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)