Leumi and HOT Help a Friend

Less than two weeks before the World Cup soccer championship begins, Charlton's package is unraveling. The company, which owns the broadcast rights to the games, had slapped a price tag of NIS 492 on the World Cup (Mondial) package, down from about NIS 800 - the price originally touted about. But buyers were balking, whether in outright protest or in hope that the price would drop.

Eli Azur, who owns Charlton, realized that he was down a round in his poker game with Israel's soccer fans. They were refusing the astronomical price of NIS 492 for the right to watch the games. He realized he'd lose out even if he stood firm to the last and if the fans capitulated at the last second:  the technology is not built to handle hundreds of thousands of last-second orders.

And two old friends came to Azur's rescue, Bank Leumi and Yedioth Ahronoth, though it wasn't pure altruism: they smelled a buck to be made too.

Israel's second-biggest bank and the nation's biggest newspaper cobbled together a proposal that would reduce the cost of watching the games to NIS 99, on condition that the viewer bank with Leumi and commit to subscribing to HOT cable television for two years.

Leumi wants to take advantage of the games to increase its share of the credit card market, at the expense of Bank Hapoalim's Isracard. And HOT (in which Yedioth Ahronoth owns a major stake) gets to keep viewers for two years, stemming its bleed to the Yes satellite TV company.

The idea was not a new one. In 2002, Yes tried to buy exclusive broadcast rights to the World Cup, and meant to force anybody buying the package to commit to a long-term contract. Ultimately the broadcasts were provided on the Sports5+ channel, with no strings attached beyond the usual price for accessing that channel.

As said Yedioth owns a chunk of HOT. It also owns the Ynet website, which bought the right from Azur's Charlton to show clips from the game on Internet.

Ostensibly, Yedioth and Azur are bitter rivals. In practice, Azur belongs to a tiny clique that had been invited to the wedding of Noni Mozes, owner of Yedioth, a few months back.

Mozes is a sports freak and, like Azur, began his career in the media as a sports reporter.

Mozes and Azur compete in the Russian-language press: Mozes ownes Vesti and Azur owns Novosty. But it is not a life or death struggle, say people in the know. The existence of a rival saves Vesti from fending off claims that it's a monopoly and Vesti isn't bringing out heavy guns to wipe out its rival.

Bank Leumi has an even stronger interest in Azur's financial wellbeing. He owes the bank money, having borrowed to buy the Jerusalem Post for more than NIS 60 million, among other things.

Azur would probably welcome similar ideas from Bank Hapoalim, Yes or Bank Discount. The deal with Bank Leumi and HOT won't solve all of his problems: their joint audience covers maybe 20% of the viewers he wants to reach. A deal with Isracard would be purely lovely for him.

The deal with HOT and Leumi set a threshold, though. Unless other banks do a deal with him, Azur will have to find some other way to lower the package price. But now HOT, Yes and their shareholders will have no interest to lower it below NIS 100.