Former Fox Sports Marketing Execs Indicted For Alleged Soccer Match Rights Bribes

Two former 21st Century Fox executives have been indicted on charges of wire fraud and money laundering, in connection with alleged bribes totaling millions of dollars to secure media and marketing rights to soccer matches.

The charges against Hernan Lopez and Carlos Martinez, handed up by a grand jury on March 18, were unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

The two are alleged to have made payments to officials of CONMEBOL, South America’s official soccer governing body, to obtain confidential bidding information during FIFA’s sales of U.S. television rights to the 2018 and 2020 World Cup tournaments.

Lawyers for Lopez and Martinez released statements denying the charges.  

In 2011, Fox secured English-language television rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, following ESPN having had the rights from 1994 through 2014.

FIFA also awarded Fox the 2026 rights without competitive bidding, to make up for expected lower viewership of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the event was moved from summer to late fall, according to CNBC.

The indictment also charges Gerard Romy, former CEO of Imagina Media Audiovisual, and Full Play Group SA, a Uruguayan sports marketing company, with engaging in the alleged racketeering conspiracy.

It states that Lopez and Martinez, while respectively CEO and president of a Latin American Fox subsidiary, conspired with Full Play to bribe CONMEBOL officials to secure rights to the Copa Libertadores club tournament and other events.

Romy and alleged co-conspirators are accused of paying Jeffrey Webb, a former president of the North and Central American and Caribbean governing body CONCACAF, a $3-million bribe for media and marketing rights to Caribbean qualifying matches for the 2018 and 2022 cycles.

Webb pleaded guilty to multiple counts in 2015, and is still awaiting sentencing, according to CNBC.

According to Reuters, more than 40 people and entities have been charged in the case since 2015, and 26 have pleaded guilty.

Two executives — former CONMEBOL chief Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay, and former Brazilian soccer head Jose Maria Marin — were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Lawyers for Romy and Full Play did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment. Fox Sports also did not respond to a request for comment.

“The profiteering and bribery in international soccer have been deep-seated and commonly known practices for decades,” William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, asserted in a statement. “Over a period of many years, the defendants and their co-conspirators corrupted the governance and business of international soccer with bribes and kickbacks, and engaged in criminal fraudulent schemes that caused significant harm to the sport of soccer. Their schemes included the use of shell companies, sham consulting contracts and other concealment methods to disguise the bribes and kickback payments and make them appear legitimate.”

Disney acquired the majority of 21st Century Fox in 2019, after the alleged illegal activities.

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