Liverpool fans watching their team on a TV in a pub. The EU may change the way that TV rights are sold to commercial premises (Getty)

(WFI) The European Union’s highest court has threatened the English Premier League’s (EPL) dominance of individual TV territories, with a landmark opinion that could fundamentally alter the way that sports rights are sold across Europe.

Juliane Kokott, an advocate general of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), has advised the court to rule in favour of Karen Murphy, a Portsmouth landlady, who brought the case after facing legal action for screening EPL games in her pub using a Greek satellite decoder.

The overseas broadcasts, for which she paid an £800 annual subscription, cost around 5 per cent of the rates that the EPL’s British domestic broadcaster, BSkyB, would charge. The EPL, which sells European television rights on a territory-by-territory basis, has spent several years trying to protect its host broadcaster by stamping down on British pubs screening live coverage from foreign broadcasters.

Kokott advised that the EPL’s strategy represents “a serious impairment of freedom to provide services”. EU member states have free movements of goods, services and labour in most instances and said that the idea of selling on a territorial exclusivity basis was “tantamount to profiting from the elimination of the internal market”.

Kokott’s opinion is not legally binding, but the European Court of Justice (ECJ) usually follows the advocate general’s advice.

The EPL were today considering Kokott’s Opinion, but their initial view was that it is incompatible with the EU law. They added that it would damage the interests of broadcasters and viewers of Premier League football across Europe.

An EPL spokesman said that if Kowott’s opinion were to be reflected in the ECJ’s judgment, “it would prevent rights holders across Europe from marketing their rights in a way which meets demand from broadcasters whose clear preference is to acquire, and pay for, exclusive rights within their own territory only and to use those rights to create services which satisfy the cultural preferences of their viewers within that territory.”

The EPL’s current collective overseas rights deal is worth in excess of £1billion for the period 2010-13. The EPL does not release country-by-country broadcast rights figures for Europe and it is not believed to be as lucrative a market as parts of Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, an ECJ ruling could force the league to sell collective rights across the EU, which may in turn lead to a diminution of its next deal.

“If the European Commission wants to create a pan-European licensing model for sports, film and music then it must go through the proper consultative and legislative processes to change the law rather than attempting to force through legislative changes via the courts,” the spokesman added.
“The ECJ is there to enforce the law, not change it.”

Domestically it may force more problems for the EPL. Industry analysts place the value of its domestic commercial premises rights – namely those given to pubs and offices – as high as £200 million per year, and if this is threatened by an EU ruling the EPL’s long term broadcast partner, BSkyB, is unlikely to pay as much for its next rights deal.

The EPL declined to comment on this possibility.

From INSIDER’s James Corbett

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