EU Court adviser goes against Premier League

EU Court adviser goes against Premier League

Published Feb. 3, 2011 4:08 p.m. ET

Consumers in Europe should be free to use the cheapest satellite decoder available to watch football matches, even if it sidesteps exclusive national broadcasting agreements, the top adviser to the European Union's highest court said Thursday.

If followed by a full ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the next months, the decision could have a huge impact on how the 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.

''Our initial view is that it is not compatible with the existing body of EU case law and would damage the interests of broadcasters and viewers of Premier League football across the EU,'' the Premier League said in a statement.

It could be a boon, though, to viewers in Britain who want to see the games at the cheapest rates possible.


''It could set off an earthquake in sports rights marketing,'' said Dr. Peter Duvinage, a German legal expert. ''The possible economic impact is tough to assess for now.''

Advocate General to the Court of Justice Juliane Kokott gave Thursday's advice in a case pitting the Premier League against companies that import Greek decoders into Britain to see the matches at a cheaper price.

Kokott said that divvying up Europe into national markets for separately priced broadcast agreements ''constitutes a serious impairment of the freedom to provide services.''

The full court often, but not always, follows the advocate general's advice. A ruling is expected later in the year.

For years, the EU has been working to turn the territory of its member states into on open market unburdened by commercial frontiers that hurt continentwide trade in the past.

Kokott sees the practice of selling rights on a country-by-country base and keeping cheaper alternatives out of other member states as a blatant infringement on that principle.

''The exclusivity rights in question have the effect of partitioning the internal market into quite separate national markets, something which constitutes a serious impairment of the freedom to provide services'' in the 27-nation bloc, the court said in a statement on Kokott's advice.

To get live Premier League games in Britain, viewers first need to have a Sky box at 49 British pounds ($79) and pay 30 pounds ($49) for the setup. The cheapest Sky subscription with sports is 39.75 pounds ($65) per month. On top of that, football fans have to pay an additional 9 pounds ($15) for ESPN, which has the broadcast rights to the remaining live Premier League games.

The Premier League is by far the richest in the world. The latest three-year domestic broadcasting-rights deal alone raised 1.782 billion pounds ($2.87 billion).

Some countries in mainland Europe, among them Greece, offer cheaper alternatives.

Greece's satellite subscription sevice, Nova, offers Premier League matches as part of a package for a monthly fee of ?52.20 (44.10 pounds; $71.40), with Champions League and Europa League matches also included.

The court said that there was no reason to charge more, or less, in any particular states to watch the same football match.

The statement said there was ''no specific right to charge different prices for a work in each member state. Rather, it forms part of the logic of the internal market that price differences between different member states should be offset by trade.''

''The marketing of broadcasting rights on the basis of territorial exclusivity is tantamount to profiting from the elimination of the internal market,'' the statement said.

The Premier League retorted that broadcasters have ''a clear preference'' to service their own territory only, and insisted the court should stop meddling in the issue.

The court ''is there to enforce the law, not change it,'' the Premier League said.

Currently, the court says, the Premier League forces broadcasters to encrypt their signal so it cannot be seen outside their broadcast area. Viewers have to buy decoders to watch the games.

Companies have exported such decoders to more expensive markets, making it possible to view the games at cheaper rates. The Premier League started court proceedings against the practice and targeted a local landlady of a pub who used a Greek decoder to show the games. The local court dealing with it asked the EU high court for an interpretation.

The Conservatives in the European Parliament sided with the Premier League.

''These are national football leagues that are being broadcast, and they should be subjected to national territorial rights agreements,'' MEP Emma McClarkin said.

If backed by the full court, ''the consequences will be very far-reaching for television and sports rights owners and for all levels of sport,'' she said.