FIFA, UEFA lose legal challenge over TV coverage

Chalk up another giant victory for Britain’s regular folks. The

glorious months of World Cup or European Championship soccer, when

dozens of games are followed with rabid enthusiasm across the

continent, will stay on free TV, not cable.

In a major slapdown to powerful federations like FIFA and UEFA,

who pocket big profits from lucrative TV broadcasting rights, a

European Union high court in Luxembourg ruled Thursday that they

have no right to sell most of their prime tournaments to pay-TV

networks.

The court said World Cup and Euro games are cherished social and

cultural events that belong to all the people, including the

poor.

It was the second TV victory for ordinary citizens this month. A

top EU court official also advised that bars and individuals have

the right to use the cheapest satellite decoder available to watch

matches in England’s Premier League, even if that sidesteps

exclusive national broadcasting agreements.

Some experts see a trend.

”It is certainly valid to link those two as two consecutive

victories for couch potatoes,” said Callum Murray, editorial

director of Sportcal Global Communication, a sports information

company specializing in broadcast and marketing rights.

The price of stadium seats for Europe’s top games have long ago

spiraled out of reach for most people. A fan in London could easily

spend 65 to 100 pounds ($105 to $162) for a regular seat – and

hedge fund types pay tens of thousands a year for club boxes.

Cable TV soccer packages in England begin about 40 pounds ($65)

a month and some games have an additional pay-per-view cost.

But with the EU court action, there just might be more money for

beer and chips in people’s living rooms.

FIFA and UEFA, which govern world and European soccer, wanted to

sell the exclusive rights to most World Cup and European

championship games to the highest bidder, including pay-TV

channels, arguing that broadcasting rights constitute a major

source of their income.

While some EU nations reserved free viewing for a limited number

of games, including their own national team and the final and

semifinal of those big championships, Britain and Belgium had

earmarked the entire tournaments for free TV.

To boost their sales, especially from Britain, FIFA and UEFA

challenged it before the General Court of the European Union,

arguing the important matches like the semis and final were already

protected. They also claimed that many first round games don’t even

get good ratings.

However, the EU Court said the World Cup and the European

Championship were ”single events” that could not be divvied up at

will.

FIFA and UEFA have two months to appeal the decision, but only

on the points of law, not on the principles of the case.

”This is good news for people who want to watch important

sporting events on television without having to pay for it,” EU

Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd said.

UEFA said in a statement it ”is disappointed to learn about

today’s judgment by the General Court of the European Union. UEFA

will now study the decision in detail in order to decide on next

steps.”

There was no immediate reaction from FIFA.

Under EU rules, nations can say certain sports events have such

significance that they can force organizers to sell broadcast

rights to free-to-air companies only. Beyond the soccer

tournaments, that often includes the summer and winter Olympics,

major cycling races, auto races and tennis tournaments.

FIFA earned at least $2 billion in TV and media rights deals for

the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. UEFA said turnover during the

three-week Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland was

$2.04 billion, with more than half the money coming from the sale

of broadcasting rights.

So by bringing in more pay-TV interest, sales could even surge

further.

”What FIFA and UEFA want is to pit pay-television broadcasters

in the bidding against free-to-air broadcasters and create a

genuine competitive market for the rights,” Murray said. In

Britain now, BBC and ITV join the bidding to share the broadcasts,

undercutting the competitive element.

In the United States, major sports events such as football’s

Super Bowl, baseball’s World Series, and the finals for the

National Hockey League and National Basketball Association, are on

free-to-air television because they draw the highest ratings and

the networks’ model is they can recoup their investment with high

ad prices. Some playoff series, however, are shown on cable.

The cable network ESPN, a division of The Walt Disney Co. along

with ABC, bought U.S. English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014

World Cups for $100 million, and Univision purchased U.S.

Spanish-language rights to the two tournaments for $325

million.

Conservative British lawmakers welcomed the ruling.

”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,” said Emma McClarkin, a member of the European

Parliament.

She said every single game has prime viewing interest.

”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 knockout stages,” she said. ”These matters are

in the national interest and they should be free for the nation to

watch.”

Earlier this month, a top adviser to the EU’s highest court

argued consumers could use cheap decoders to watch games,

sidestepping those from national broadcast companies.

If followed by a full ruling of the Court of Justice of the

European Union in the next few months, the decision could have a

huge impact on how the broadcast rights of England’s Premier League

are sold in the rest of Europe and how it creates revenue for the

world’s richest football league.

The court case was brought by a British bar owner who wanted to

show Premier League games using a cheaper Greek decoder.

Graham Dunbar in Geneva and Ron Blum in New York contributed to

this report.