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EU adviser: foreign football feeds should be legal

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Pubs might soon be able to screen all Premier League games after a ruling by an EU legal adviser. Broadcasters who own the UK rights to Premier League football cannot stop customers watching foreign satellite feeds, according to advocate Juliane Kokott of the European Court of Justice.

Kokott said that a domestic block on the use of European feeds was against EU law. While this is a non-binding statement from Kokott, judges usually follow and ratify the advice of advocates.

“The exclusivity agreement relating to transmission of football matches are contrary to European Union law,” said Kokott. “The exclusivity rights in question have the effect of partitioning the internal market into quite separate national markets, something which constitutes a serious impairment of the freedom to provide services.”

The current TV deal, running from 2010-13, is worth a whopping £1.782bn to the Premier League and any legal tinkering with the formula at European level could have huge ramifications for both the Premier League’s business model and Sky’s 20-year hold over top-flight football in England.

At present the Premier League sells its live rights domestically to both Sky and ESPN. The rights for the rest of Europe are then carved up and sold country-by-country – meaning other countries’ broadcasters pay significantly less to watch Premier League football than broadcasters in England do. These savings are then passed on to the consumer.

If the rights now have to be sold at one Pan-European price the assumption is that the rights received by the Premier League will drop significantly. While British TV-viewers and pubs may be willing to pay a premium to watch or screen English football, European consumers may be less likely to do so. Negotiations could see some nations’ subscription prices falling, and others rising, as one European price for Premier League rights is agreed.

This whole process was set in motion after an appeal to the European courts by Portsmouth landlady Karen Murphy over whether it was legal to show foreign TV channels broadcasting Premier League games in her pub. While the sight of Premier League matches being broadcast in pubs at 3pm on a Saturday is a common one across the UK the practice is, at present, illegal.

As a result Karen Murphy, who runs The Red, White, and Blue pub was convicted of “fraudulent reception of transmissions” at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court in January 2007 for showing Premier League matches. However, Murphy argued that her conviction should be quashed as it is not in line with European Commission legislation.

As Murphy purchased the TV subscription legitimately through Greek broadcaster Nova – a legitimate European-based supplier – she argued she should be able to show the matches they screen. If pub landlords pay to broadcast live games via Sky legitimately they can expect to pay around £15-20,000 per annum. Murphy on the other hand only had to pay £800 per annum to subscribe to Greek broadcaster Nova, back in 2007.

The Premier League’s response to Kokott’s statement pulls no punches: “The Opinion expressed by Advocate General Kokott may reflect a particular policy view in relation to the provision of audio-visual services throughout the EU. However, if her opinion were to be reflected in the ECJ’s judgment, it would prevent rights holders across Europe from marketing their rights in a way which meets demand from broadcasters whose clear preference is to acquire, and pay for, exclusive rights within their own territory only and to use those rights to create services which satisfy the cultural preferences of their viewers within that territory. 

“We would hope that when the ECJ comes to its judgment in our case that the current European law, framed to help promote, celebrate and develop the cultural differences within the EU, is upheld. If the European Commission wants to create a pan-European licensing model for sports, film and music then it must go through the proper consultative and legislative processes to change the law rather than attempting to force through legislative changes via the courts. The ECJ is there to enforce the law, not change it.”

The date for the ECJ’s verdict has not yet been confirmed.

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