A few weeks ago it was reported that the Premier League lost the first round of a dispute over the rights to broadcast football matches.
The General Court was advised that the Premier league’s territorial exclusivity agreements to broadcast football matches are contrary to European Union law. The final outcome is still pending, but if the court follows the advice, UK football fans will be able to use a decoder from any European country to watch league games rather than having to use an expensive Sky decoder.
Now, in a separate ruling, the General Court held that it is justified by law for member states to stipulate that the World Cup and European Championships, among other popular matches, are to be accessible by free-to-air television broadcasts.
According to UK and European Law the World Cup and the European Championship are ‘protected’ events, meaning that all these events must be broadcast on free-to-air channels.
FIFA and UEFA challenged those rules before the General Court, claiming that games not involving the home nations should be available to pay TV channels. FIFA and UEFA wanted to sell the exclusive rights to most World Cup and European championship games to the highest bidder, including pay-TV channels. They argued that broadcasting rights constitute a major source of their income. For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa FIFA earned at least $2 billion in TV and media rights deals.
However, the General Court dismissed the actions by FIFA and UEFA, on the basis that the law justifies a restriction of their freedom to strike lucrative deals with TV broadcasters on account of the high degree of public interest in the tournaments. The Court said, that both championships “have a special general resonance in the U.K. in their entirety, as they are particularly popular with the general public”, not just those who regularly watch. Hence, these games should be available for all citizens even for the poor.
The decision has been welcomed among a wide section of the public. For instance, Emma McClarkin, a member of the European Parliament said: “We need to ensure that the crown jewels of our national sports are accessible to everyone. I hope that FIFA and UEFA will not appeal this ruling".
Unsurprisingly, the UEFA was disappointed about the judgement. FIFA and UEFA have two months to appeal the decision. It remains to be seen whether or not they will appeal the decisions.
Nevertheless, these decisions show a trend and could have a far reaching and transformative effect on the European landscape for broadcast sports events.
Cable TV soccer packages in England begin at about £40 per month and some games even have an additional pay-per-view cost. The price of stadium seats for Europe’s top games has long ago spiralled out of reach for most people.
But with the latest EU court action the crown jewels of the UK national sports remain accessible for a wide range of football fans.
Shireen Smith is a solicitor specialising in intellectual property, technology and internet law. Shireen qualified over 20 years ago and founded Azrights Solicitors 6 years ago. Azrights focuses on helping small and medium enterprises protect and exploit their investment in brands, design, and technology, and advises them on doing business online. Looking after SME clients requires unique skills and knowledge; client needs from an IP lawyer are subtly different to those of big business.