15th May 2021

UEFA lose legal battle on free-to-air football

  • Governments have to right to put all World Cup matches on free TV channels (Photo: bildungsr0man)

EU governments have the right to ensure that international football championships are available on free-to-air television channels, according a court ruling on Thursday (18 July).

The judgement by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) dismissed appeals by FIFA, which runs the World Cup, and the European governing body UEFA.

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The case had been brought by the two governing bodies after Belgium and the United Kingdom had each included all the games in the final stages of the World Cup as part of a list of the sporting events that had to be available on free-to-air channels. The UK also included the matches in the Euro-2012 championship.

Under EU broadcasting law, governments are allowed to designate big sporting events as being of "major importance" to their country even though this goes against the spirit of EU competition law. However, governments are required to formally set out their justifications to the European Commission.

In both cases, the list included matches involving neither the Belgian or English national teasm, but the EU executive arm approved the requests.

FIFA and UEFA challenged the original decision to uphold the list made by the EU's General Court in February 2011, arguing that not all those matches could constitutes events of major importance for the general public in the two countries. The General Court dismissed their actions, which led them to lodge appeals before the Court of Justice.

The court also indicated that the EU executive had limited rights to overrule the wishes of governments.

"It is for the member states alone to determine the events which are of major importance and that the commission’s role in that respect is limited to determining whether the member states have complied with European Union law in exercising their discretion," it said.

The ruling also has implications for other sports and reduces the prospect of sports governing bodies being able to generate extra revenue by breaking up broadcasting rights packages on a pay-per-view basis.

In a statement, FIFA said that it was "disappointed" by the ruling, claiming that a requirement for free-to-air coverage "distorts the media market, negatively impacting FIFA’s ability to reach football fans with new services."

It indicated that the rules would reduce its ability to raise money from future competitions. The next competition will be held in Brazil in 2014.

For its part, UEFA warned that amateur football would suffer from the lost revenue.

The ruling "reduces the possibility to generate income that can then be distributed to the amateur game via solidarity payments," a spokesperson for UEFA said.

FIFA earned over $2 billion (€1.7 billion) from the broadcasting rights for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, while UEFA is estimated to have made more than $1 billion (€1.3 billion) from last year's Euro-2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine.

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