Leading sports organisations have backed plans by the European Commission to encourage collective selling of media rights in a bid to ensure that revenue is shared more evenly between sports clubs. But a British MEP expressed fear that the EU will interfere with TV rights for the English Premier League.
The Commission's communication on sport, presented by Sports Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou on 18 January, sets out concrete proposals for EU legislation to help establish the bloc's first ever sports policy, created by the Lisbon Treaty.
The document calls on sports associations to establish mechanisms for the collective selling of media rights to ensure adequate redistribution of revenue.
"Exploitation of intellectual property rights in the area of sport, such as licensing of re-transmission of sport events or merchandising represents important sources of income for professional sports," states the communication, adding that "revenue derived from these sources is often partly redistributed to lower levels of the sports chain".
UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe, gave a warm welcome to the Commission's plans to market media rights centrally, with General Secretary Gianni Infantino describing the news as "an important achievement in terms of European legislation and sport".
Boosting financial solidarity
Indeed, the Commission pledges in its communication "to explore ways to strengthen financial solidarity mechanisms within sports while fully respecting EU competition rules".
"The collective selling of media rights is a good example of financial solidarity and redistribution mechanisms within sports," the Commission points out, arguing that collective selling brings advantages that outweigh the negative effects of restricting competition.
Member states currently have different regulatory approaches in areas relating to intellectual property rights, particularly "regarding the extent of property rights for the organisers of sport competitions in relation to the events they organise" and "the issue of image rights in sport," recalls the communication.
Representatives of the Olympic Movement, meanwhile, said last week that the Commission's support for collective selling of media rights would serve as "a means to ensure financial solidarity and redistribution mechanisms within sport".
They also praised the EU executive's pledge to protect the intellectual property rights owned by sports organisations, which they said were "an important source of revenue for sport".
Fears of interference with Premier League
But not everyone is happy. Responding to fears that the European Commission might seek to regulate how football coverage is sold in the UK, British Conservative MEP Bill Cash argued on his blog that "the Premier League should decide how to sells its TV rights in the UK".
"This is a domestic issue and consequently the European Commission should not interfere," Cash said.
The Commission will also seek to promote exchange of best practice on transparent and sustainable sports financing, monitor the application of state aid law in the field of sport and push for full exploitation of sport-related aspects of the EU's structural funds.
As for sports governance, the Commission will launch a study on transfer rules and issue guidance on "how to reconcile EU rules on the free movement of citizens with the organisation of competitions in individual sports on a national basis," and "consider further action regarding the activities of sports agents".
"Transfers of players regularly come to public attention because of concerns about the legality of the acts and about transparency of financial flows involved," points out the EU executive in its communication.
"The Commission considers that the time has come for an overall evaluation of transfer rules in professional sport in Europe," the document states.
Potential for legal action
Some observers believe that the EU's sports policy could be challenged in court given that the wording of the relevant Lisbon Treaty article is vague.
Article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty requires the Commission to develop the European dimension of sport by drawing up a specific EU policy programme, "while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function".
But it gives little detail of how this will be done, opening the door to interpretation by the courts.
Laurent Thieule, president of Sport and Citizenship, a leading EU sports think-tank, says the most significant outstanding issue is whether the specific nature of sport as described by the treaty could legally result in "a sporting exception".