London: A row between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over illegal broadcasts of the World Cup initially looked like a sideshow in their year-long political standoff. But then, it posed a threat to a multibillion-dollar business.

Television channel beoutQ has been pirating premium sports content and beaming it primarily around West Asia. Qatar, whose network beIN Sports holds the rights to most of the football games, tennis matches and motor races, said Saudi Arabia is behind the operation.

The Saudi authorities denied the allegation and said they were combating piracy.

But away from the trading of accusations, sports organizations are now mobilizing to protect their interests. World football governing body Fifa said on Wednesday it would take legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working with other owners of sports rights. It, however, did not say who it planned to sue.

“Fifa urges the authorities of Saudi Arabia and of the different countries, where these illegal activities have been observed, to support us in the fight against piracy," it said in a statement.

Last week, the Spanish league had said that it loses €400 million a year to piracy and vowed to take action against beoutQ. Global tennis associations described the channel on 5 July as an “industrial-scale illegal piracy". That was after the Uefa called on authorities to use “all their power" to shut it down.

Selling television rights is the biggest money-spinner for sports competitions from the English Premier League to the NFL. Combined broadcast revenue for Europe’s top five football leagues is worth almost €8 billion a year.

Failure to act against piracy could mean less money down the line as networks seek compensation or negotiate lower fees, said Marc Ganis, head of the Chicago-based sports business company Sportscorp. “The risk increases significantly the greater the piracy becomes and the more financially attractive markets they penetrate," said Ganis.

BeoutQ started online in August 2017 and satellite broadcasts began the following month. It is backed by Colombian, Cuban and West Asian investors, according to an earlier version of its website. The channel shot to prominence in West Asia in May when it streamed the Uefa football Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool in the region, appearing to be a play on the beIN name.

BeIN Sports already has been hit by West Asia politics after Saudi Arabia and three of its allies severed diplomatic, trade and transport links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism. Qatar, which is set to host Fifa World Cup in 2022, says the boycott is an attempt to subvert its sovereignty.

Over the past year, profit in the region was 17% lower than projected because of the boycott and piracy, said Tom Keaveny, managing director for West Asia and Africa at beIN Sports. He didn’t provide more details.

BeoutQ has “opened a Pandora’s box", said Keaveny. “If it’s possible to steal from us, it’s possible to steal from any broadcaster or rights holder in the world."

Indeed, beoutQ was widely available in Saudi Arabia in the months leading to the World Cup. It was also seen streaming the tournament at restaurants and public venues.

“The case of beoutQ is especially troubling due to the unparalleled sophistication and the extensive period of time over which the commercial-scale theft has been allowed to continue," the world’s tennis governing bodies said on 5 July, describing beoutQ as being based in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government has denied any link to the channel and said it has confiscated thousands of devices used to stream content illegally. Satellite television provider Arabsat carries BeoutQ.

While headquartered in Riyadh, Arabsat is an entity affiliated with the Arab League, and was established by 22 members, the ministry of media said in a statement. BeoutQ, it said, is also available in other countries.

“Suggesting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in any way complicit in beoutQ’s operation both offends the Saudi people and is a malicious lie," it said.

Arabsat didn’t answer an email seeking comment. With beoutQ’s illegal broadcasts largely confined to West Asia, the impact on revenue globally may remain limited. But entities such as Fifa are under more pressure to stamp out piracy, even if that means upsetting potential investors.