Published February 17, 2011
BRUSSELS – 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 the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals 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.
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.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this story from Geneva and Ron Blum from New York.