The Man Who Put French Soccer at Risk Says It’s Not His Fault

Sitting alone on a long table inside a committee room deep inside France’s national assembly, the Spanish businessman tried to explain why things had gone wrong, so very wrong.

The businessman, Jaume Roures, the founder of a sprawling media company, was the latest figure — and perhaps the most significant — to be quizzed by lawmakers looking to understand why professional soccer in France had been brought to the edge of economic catastrophe by the collapse of a broadcasting contract. The deal, hailed as a financial game-changer when it was signed in 2018, was sold as one that would drastically shift the prospects of France’s top teams, moving them closer to their rivals in Spain and Italy, and perhaps even those in England’s Premier League, the world’s dominant domestic championship.

Instead, the $1 billion contract with Mediapro, Roures’s Chinese-backed company, collapsed shortly after it had come into force in 2020. Roures suspended payments, calling for a renegotiation in light of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The league disagreed, and Roures, unable to agree to new terms, pulled the plug and left France, a country where he once sought sanctuary after fighting against the dictatorship in his native Spain.

The impact of the failure — for Roures and his company, for club executives and for French soccer — continues to be felt.

Clubs that not so long ago were consumed by giddy thoughts of being able to compete with some of Europe’s best are now consumed with darker worries about how they are going to survive. Clubs offloaded young stars and reliable veterans in the summer transfer market where they could, sometimes for fees below market value as the market itself cratered, to cover for gaps on troubled balance sheets. And an auction this year to select Mediapro’s replacement as the league’s broadcaster ended with Amazon agreeing to pay less than a third of what Roures and Mediapro had once promised.

At his hearing in September, the bald and bespectacled Roures looked more like a college professor than a media mogul. Looking down at a sheaf of papers laid out in front of him in Room 6242 of the Palais Bourbon, he began by delivering a meandering soliloquy in Spanish-accented French that touched upon several factors for why, in his view, things unraveled so spectacularly. He was still speaking in a monotone when one of the lawmakers, Cédric Roussel, intervened.

“You give the impression that it was everybody else’s fault except Mediapro’s,” Roussel, sitting on a raised dais he shared with other members of the committee, said.

Many in France remain furious over Roures’s exit, over how he shuttered a new channel set up to broadcast games, over how he could walk away from his commitments while paying only 100 million euros in compensation and over how his businesses have started to rebound from the pandemic while the futures of French clubs remain shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. “We could have a delayed catastrophe,” said Pierre Maes, a consultant and the author of “Le Business des Droits TV du Foot,” a book on the soccer rights market.

Midfielder Eduardo Camavinga was one of the best prospects to leave Ligue 1 over the summer.Credit…Jean-Francois Monier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Camavinga, 18, was one of France’s best young prospects at Rennes. Now he plays for Real Madrid.Credit…Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Roures, in an interview with The New York Times shortly before his audience with lawmakers, doubled down on his belief that his plan would have worked had the pandemic not changed everything. For it to work, though, Mediapro’s new channel, Telefoot, would have needed to attract three million subscribers, far more than the reported 300,000 it had managed to lure by the time of its collapse.

Looking back at how things unfolded, Roures says now, it was the French league that erred in not renegotiating with him. He contends that his new offer — about 580 million euros, or about $675 million — was double the amount the league managed to extract from Amazon; that the government’s failure to tackle piracy also contributed to Mediapro’s hasty exit; and that Canal Plus, France’s top pay-TV operator, tried to abuse its dominant position.

That stance may explain why he was unable to negotiate his contract with the league in the fall of 2020. Roures, said a team owner who also sits on the French league’s board, “lost all credibility, and no one wanted to hear about him.”

A spokesman for the league did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Roures, who rose to prominence at the turn of the century when he secured domestic rights to the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, lamented the price he had paid. “There has been significant reputational damage for us,” he said in the interview from Mediapro’s headquarters in Barcelona, Spain.

Asked if any part of his foray into French soccer kept him up at night, he said no: “I sleep like a baby.”

While in his interview Roures attempted to provide various explanations for what happened, he declined to point fingers directly at France’s clubs or its league. But he suggested his new view from the sideline offered him a glimpse of the structural problem that he suggested could leave the French league perpetually in the shadow of its rivals: Teams there, Roures said, are far too reliant on player trading to balance their books.

“I would say it’s the only major European league where the role of transfers is fundamental, and that’s a major weakness,” he said. The higher television incomes he had promised, he said, would have allowed clubs, at least in theory, to keep their top stars for at least a little longer.

Paris St.-Germain, which this summer added Lionel Messi, left, to a lineup that already boasted Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, is the one French club that seems impervious to economic crisis.Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet even amid the crisis, and the red ink splashed across balance sheets from Lille to Marseille, the French league has suddenly found itself more marketable than at any other point in its history. That is because of the presence of Paris St.-Germain, a team largely shielded from the financial turmoil that has engulfed its domestic rivals by the wealth of its owner, the government of Qatar, and strengthened by the summer signing of Lionel Messi.

But Messi mania is not likely to be as profitable for the league as much as it will be for Amazon, which secured its cut price contract before the Argentine’s arrival.

His arrival in France came shortly after that, and other contracts are locked in. “Amazon has got very lucky,” Roures said. “But the international rights for the championship have been sold up until 2025, and I don’t think it’s going to represent any greater income for the French league.”

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