BBC News

Fifa loses free-to-air World Cup TV battle

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionAll World Cup finals games will remain free to watch on TV in the UK

Fifa and Uefa have lost an appeal against a European ruling that the World Cup and Euro Championships should be shown on free-to-air TV in the UK.

In 2011, the European General Court said the UK could keep the events on a list of "protected" events of national sporting interest broadcast for free.

It means the two tournaments cannot be sold exclusively to pay-TV firms.

Fifa and Uefa had appealed, after saying they could not sell the events fairly for their real value.

But the European Court of Justice - Europe's Supreme Court - has now said the original decision in the General Court (formerly Court of First Instance) in 2011 was correct.

Big money

The BBC and ITV had already secured the rights to broadcast the football World Cup finals in 2014, and they were guaranteed of being shown free-to-air.

But there had been fears that moves towards a pay-TV model would have been in place in time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, should Fifa and Uefa have won their case.

The court said it "dismisses the appeals brought by Fifa and Uefa in their entirety".

Fifa earned a minimum of $2bn (£1,3bn) in TV and media rights deals for the South Africa 2010 World Cup, and Uefa makes hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of its TV rights to the European Championships.

Pay-TV rights for football are currently big business, as seen by the huge sums paid by BT Sports and Sky in the latest Premier League TV deal, which kicks off in the forthcoming 2013/14 season.

BT has spent £738m over three years for the rights to 38 live matches a season. and Sky paid £2.3bn for 116 matches a season.

'Major importance'

Even if Fifa had won its case, World Cup finals games featuring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have remained free to watch in the UK, as would the opening games, semi-finals and the final.

But it was the other dozens of games featuring non-UK teams that Fifa was disputing - and had argued that matches such as these should not be shown for free in the UK.

image captionFifa's proposal meant fans in the UK would have had to pay to watch World Cup matches such as Spain v Paraguay

Fifa and Uefa had argued that the current set-up interfered with their ability to sell television rights at the best commercial price they could get in the marketplace.

However, the UK argued that all the 64 World Cup finals matches and 31 European Championship matches were an important part of the list of national sporting "crown jewels", that have to be made available to the whole population to watch on terrestrial television.

And the court agreed, saying that European states were able to select broadcast events, "which they deem to be of major importance for society" and show them for free.

Otherwise it "would deprive a substantial proportion of the public of the possibility of following those events on free television".


Belgium was also successful in keeping the rights to World Cup and European Championship matches on free-to-air services.

Despite the more than two-year wait for the result of the appeal by Fifa and Uefa, many experts had expected the decision to go against them.

"The result means that Uefa and Fifa have now reached the end of their European Court journey," said Daniel Geey, a TV sports rights expert at Field Fisher Waterhouse law firm.

image captionThe court said World Cup football was of interest to the general public, not just die-hard fans

"Their aim was to try and secure concessions to market some of their World Cup and Euro matches to pay-TV channels in the UK and Belgium with the ultimate aim of maximising their revenues.

"The European courts have rebuffed such an approach."

The case has been working its way through the European courts for the past five years, with Fifa and Uefa lodging legal papers just before the Euro 2008 football championships.

In its ruling the court said it was "for the [European] member states alone to determine the events which are of major importance" to their viewing publics.

It also said that all the matches in the final stages of the World Cup and Euros "actually attracted sufficient attention from the public to form part of an event of major importance".

The court also pointed out that the tournaments "in their entirety, have always been very popular among the general public and not only viewers who generally follow football matches on television".

'Strength of feeling'

In 2009 former BBC journalist and FA chief executive David Davies chaired a panel which looked at the way the listing system of sporting "crown jewels" was drawn up.

Following the latest European court decision he said he could see both sides of the broadcasting argument.

"I can't say I am surprised by the decision, as I know the strength of feeling on this issue," he said.

"I have some sympathy - in the new media world in which we live - for Fifa and Uefa's case, even though I believe in what we call 'listed events'."

He said that World Cup or Euro matches featuring England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, were events of "major resonance" for those countries.

"The argument about whether the whole tournament - including, for example, a match between Mexico v Latvia - can be deemed as an event of national resonance, in perpetuity, will be harder to sustain."