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Dublin: 1°C Friday 5 March 2021

European court delivers major blow to Premier League TV rights

The European Court of Justice says domestic customers are fully entitled to buy foreign TV subscriptions in order to watch football.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard hugs a TV camera at Old Trafford in 2010. An ECJ ruling could have major implications for the lucrative TV rights that propel the Premier League.
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard hugs a TV camera at Old Trafford in 2010. An ECJ ruling could have major implications for the lucrative TV rights that propel the Premier League.
Image: Gareth Copley/PA Archive

THE ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE has been given a major blow at the European Court of Justice, which has ruled that it is legal for domestic customers to show premium sports events by using a TV decoder intended for foreign audiences.

The Premier League – the group composed of the top 20 teams in English league football – had taken Portsmouth landlady Karen Murphy to court over her use of a foreign decoder to show games which were not being broadcast elsewhere.

The Premier League’s broadcasting packages for the UK do not allow the broadcast of matches kicking off at 3pm – with the idea being that live televised coverage of afternoon games would disincentivise fans from attending games in person.

In a bid to get around this, Murphy had taken out a subscription to a Greek TV service, and bought the appropriate decoder – meaning she could show matches with 3pm kickoffs involving the local side, which at the time was a Premier League team.

Aside from the practical benefits of allowing a 3pm kickoff, the Greek service – with TV network Nova – was also cheaper: it cost £118 per month, compared to the £480 per month that Sky charges for a subscription in a commercial premises.

Today the European Court, in a major blow to the Premier League, ruled that the free movement of services meant Murphy was entitled to take out a Greek subscription.

It also found that it would be illegal for TV providers to disable broadcasts in individual territories – with the BBC explaining that the UK’s legislation restricting the sale of foreign decoders “could not be justified” by concerns over the attendances at games.

It ruled against Murphy, however, in her bid to show the games to her customers through the Nova subscription – saying parts of the individual broadcasts, such as the Premier League anthem, are the intellectual property of the Premier League who must approve their commercial reuse.

The ruling does mean, however, that users can take out foreign subscriptions to watch games on a domestic basis.

Major rethink

The ECJ’s ruling is not final – it had been asked to offer guidance on the matter by Britain’s High Court, which has the final say – but it will still nonetheless force a major rethink of the lucrative TV rights packages which form the backbone of the Premier League’s commercial viability.

Indeed, in early trading in London, shares in British Sky Broadcasting Group – whose Sky Sports channels own the exclusive rights to the majority of Premier League games – fell by around 3.3 per cent on foot of the news.

Before the ruling had been issued, the Guardian had speculated that a loss for the Premier League may force it to revise its usual sales model and to sell its rights on a pan-European basis – a deal which could throw up competition problems of its own.

This could have a major impact on its revenues, however, with a single European group unlikely to pay as much for a pan-European package as they would have on an individual basis, given the lesser competition for such an expensive deal

Another option for the league would be to create its own channel in some countries, or across the European Union – but this also presents practical problems in regard to how individual games could be restricted.

The current round of TV deals expires at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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