FIFA loses fight to block free TV sports coverage

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Major sports events such as the football World Cup will be available to all television viewers in Britain and Belgium after global soccer governing body FIFA lost a legal challenge yesterday (17 February) against a European Commission decision to ensure free TV coverage of lucrative tournaments.

The General Court, the European Union's second highest court, also dismissed a similar challenge by European soccer's governing body, UEFA, against a decision by British authorities to permit free-to-air terrestrial stations to broadcast the European Championship finals.

"A member state may, in certain circumstances, prohibit the exclusive broadcast of all World Cup and Euro football matches on pay television, in order to allow the general public to follow those events on free television," the General Court said, potentially setting a precedent in EU law.

The Court said such restrictions were justified by the public's right to information and the need to ensure wide access to TV broadcasts.

It also dismissed similar action against Belgium showing all World Cup matches on free-to-air channels in that country.

Under the EU's Audiovisual Media Services Directive, member states are allowed to draw up a list of events of national interest or "crown jewels" for broadcast on free-to-air stations,

Such events include the Olympic Games, the football World Cup, the European Championships, England's FA Cup and the Wimbledon tennis championships.

At present, the lists of eight member states – Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the UK – have been approved by the European Commission.

The decision comes hot on the heels of advice issued earlier this month by the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Juliane Kokott, calling on the ECJ to rule that broadcasters cannot prevent consumers in the UK from using cheaper foreign satellite TV equipment to watch Premier League football matches, as this breaches EU law.

That decision could herald a TV sports rights revolution in Europe.

Yesterday's court ruling, meanwhile, means that British football fans can continue to enjoy major international tournaments on free-to-air television.

FIFA was contesting a 2007 decision by the European Commission to allow Belgium and Britain to reserve broadcasting rights for the World Cup to free-to-air TV stations.

FIFA and UEFA argued that the regime interferes with their property rights, especially when some countries broadcast all matches even though their national teams do not play in some of the events.

They claimed that the current situation impedes their ability to sell television rights at the best price.

The sports bodies also argued that they get less money from free-to-air TV broadcasts, which in turn would have a knock-on effect on investments and attracting world-class players and hence the quality of the games.

Proponents say allowing everybody to watch sports events will increase interest in the games.

"The court holds that the [European] Commission did not err in finding that the United Kingdom's categorisation of all World Cup and Euro matches […] as 'events of major importance' for their societies are compatible with European Union law," ruled the General Court.

"Consequently, FIFA and UEFA's actions are dismissed," it said.

A spokesman for Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport hailed the ruling. "We welcome the decision from the EU and continue to support the principle of protecting sports events for free to air coverage," he said.

General Court (formerly known as the Court of First Instance) rulings can be appealed at the European Court of Justice. FIFA and UEFA now have two months to decide whether to do so. 

The European Commission released a statement welcoming the court's decision, which it said had confirmed that individual member states have discretion under EU law to decide which sporting events are of major importance for their public and so should be available on free-to-view television.

UK Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin, European Conservatives & Reformists group spokesperson on sports, said the European courts had finally recognised the specificity of sport.

Hailing the ruling, she said "this is good news for fans". "It seems that finally the message is getting across to EU judges that sport is a very specific subject that is organised differently to the rest of the single market. We need to recognise the specificity of sport, particularly during big occasions such as the World Cup or European Championship," McClarkin said.

"Group matches could be very important to other countries towards the end of the group stages. England fans will want to watch the other matches across the groups to see who their team may be playing in the knock-out stages. These matters are in the national interest and they should be free for the nation to watch," she added.

"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," McClarkin included.

"This obviously is a bad day for rights holders," Daniel Geey, a competition and EU regulatory expert at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, told the BBC.

"FIFA and UEFA argued that the listing legislation constrained their ability to sell the broadcasts at the maximum commercial level to the widest possible selection of broadcasters," he said.

Geey stressed that the two football bodies had emphasised to the court that they only wished to sell the rights to games that did not include the relevant member state's teams.

"The General Court ruling, however, stated that the World Cup and European Championships are to be regarded as single events rather than individual games and that individual matches should not be divided up into 'prime' or 'non-prime' matches," Geey said.

EU law gives all member states the right to designate sporting and cultural events of national interest for broadcast on free-to-air TV channels.

Yesterday's rulings concerned an appeal by on FIFA and UEFA against a European Commission decision to approve lists of football matches to be available on free-to-view television submitted by Belgium and the United Kingdom.

In the UK, 1996's Broadcasting Act gives the British government the power to designate key sporting and other events as "listed events".

The list is designed to make sure that these events are made available to all television viewers, particularly those who do not have subscription television.

UK law thus makes sure that the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Championships, the Olympic Games, the FA Cup Final, the Rugby World Cup Final and the Wimbledon tennis championships are available on free-to-air channels. 


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