Fifa loses free-to-air World Cup TV battle

19.07.2013 13:42

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