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
The court said World Cup and Euro games are cherished social and
cultural events that belong to all the people, including the
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
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
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
”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
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
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
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