Consumers' Association hails EU court ruling on football rights

The Consumers' Association has hailed the recent judgment by the European Court of Justice on the way football rights are distributed, describing it as a victory for fans.

Lawyer Antoine Grima, on behalf of the association, said consumers and sports fans had “a window of opportunity” to acquire a television service from a different jurisdiction at a more competitive price.

He said the decision confirmed that the way sports broadcast rights were being assigned was in breach of EU law.

“The decision is beneficial to consumers who can buy cards or decoders from other jurisdictions and use them in their country, provided that the service being purchased is available for that territory. Consumers now have an option which they did not have before,” he said.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice ruled that the system used by the British Football Association to sell exclusive territorial rights for the live transmission of Premier League matches infringed EU law, particularly the free movement of services and competition law. It said there was nothing wrong for an EU citizen to watch such matches via a foreign decoder obtained legally.

Although the particular case on which the ECJ ruled involved the British Premier League many other football associations and individual clubs in the EU use similar systems to sell TV rights. This may all have to change following this judgement, which still has to be confirmed by the British courts.

The case was filed by Karen Murphy, a British pub owner, who had been accused by the British Premier League of acting illegally when she used a Greek decoder card to screen in her pub live matches transmitted by Hellenic company Nova. A subscription to Nova is much cheaper than a subscription to Sky or ESPN, which hold exclusive broadcast rights to show Premier League football in the UK.

The Football Association Premier League Ltd, a private company set up to represent the broadcasting interests of English football clubs, sells exclusive TV rights to broadcasters across Europe on a territory by territory basis.

Ms Murphy was prosecuted and fined £8,000 on the basis that only games broadcast by Sky or ESPN could be shown in the UK. However, she decided to take her case to the ECJ and won it, opening the doors to a radical change in the way sports broadcasting rights will be assigned in the future.

Dr Grima said the judgement was very clear in pointing out that the whole system of how sports distribution rights were being assigned was in breach of the EU internal market. Asked for his opinion on the implications of such a ruling, Dr Grima said this would cause “a revolution” in terms of copyright and competition law and now “everyone will go back to the drawing board to weigh the implications of such a decision”.

One of the interested parties which is keeping its ears to the ground is certainly local television service provider, Go, which holds the rights to broadcast British Premier League matches for the current and next season. When contacted, a company spokesman said it was still “too early” to determine what the consequences of such a decision on the company could be.

“It is much too early to say. There are still so many different ways in which this could evolve that at this stage all we can do is speculate on the unknown, which is hardly wise! We are, of course, keeping a very close eye on this situation and on what happens next in the legal context,” the spokesman said.

Nationalist MP David Agius also hailed the decision, saying it was a victory for consumers, including pubs and establishments that broadcast live football. These, he said, could now shop around for the cheapest service provider and drive down their costs.

“It increased competition and strengthened the consumer's power,” he said.

published in the Times of Malta of the 8th October 2011