Business

Premier League TV case 'at half-time', lawyer says

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United
Image caption The Premier League could be forced into a rethink of how it sells its rights

This morning, Advocate General Juliane Kokott's opinion was published in relation to the long-running football pub broadcasting cases.

She sided with publican Karen Murphy and decoder supplier QC Leisure.

This case is of major significance because it may change how rights are sold to broadcasters throughout Europe because it may remove the ability for rights owners to segment national markets.

It may also change how consumers buy television content. It may be far easier for consumers to subscribe to foreign broadcasters by using decoder cards and other equipment that is available in other member states.

There are eight advocates general whose role is to present reasoned opinions on the cases brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Advocate General Kokott's opinion may be the first step in changing the way live Premier League, and other sports rights, are sold in future.

The case, which is complex and covers a number of issues, in part relates to contractual stipulations between the Premier League and its exclusive national broadcasters (labelled "territorial restrictions").

Such territorial restrictions prohibit the broadcasting of matches outside of an allotted territory.

In the UK, Sky and ESPN have paid to have the exclusive TV broadcasting rights, in the form of packages of games.

'Bold assessment'

The advocate general has been extremely forthright in classifying such restrictions as constituting a "serious impairment on the freedom to provide services".

Image caption Sky and ESPN have the rights to show live Premier League football on television in the UK

Similarly the advocate general branded the territorial exclusivity granted by the Premier League as being "tantamount to profiting from the elimination of the internal market".

The Grand Chamber in the ECJ may still take a very different approach in its judgment.

While not binding, the advocate general's opinion can be indicative of the court's thinking.

Such bold assessments, however, strike at the very heart of the Premier League's lucrative European broadcasting rights deals.

Exclusivity has been the cornerstone of the Premier League's highly successful broadcasting revenue strategy.

Should the opinion be upheld by the ECJ, the implications for rights holders and consumers could be ground-breaking.

Price competition

Should the ECJ side with the advocate general, the Premier League will need a fundamental rethink of how it sells its lucrative rights.

This is because the Premier League can no longer guarantee total exclusivity on a national territorial basis for broadcasters.

This may lead to, for example, the Premier League marketing its rights on a pan-European basis.

Similarly, if the ECJ confirms the advocate general's opinion, consumers will be able to lawfully purchase the cheapest European channel showing Premier League matches without the threat of prosecution.

This then would allow for price competition for broadcasters and consumers alike on a European-wide basis.

Pan-sport outcome

It should also be stressed that the significance of the ECJ decision will have consequences for all sports.

Any rights holder that sells its rights on an exclusive territorial basis will be worried that it may have to change the way its rights are sold.

Everyone is now awaiting the ECJ judgement which could still be several months away.

But it must also be emphasised that the ECJ may rule in favour of the Premier League and rule that, for example, exclusivity on a territorial basis may be justified.

Mrs Murphy and set-top box importers QC Leisure are one-nil up but it's only half-time.

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