Italian regulators eye soccer rights law

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ROME -- Italian antitrust officials said Monday that they will open a probe into the competition-related aspects of a new law that dictates how Italian soccer television coverage is shared.

The investigation is the latest in a series of moves against the controversial law, which was passed in January, just before the collapse of the Italian government led by Romano Prodi. The aim of the law was to provide a fairer distribution of income among soccer clubs in order to lessen the advantage that big-city teams have over rivals from smaller urban areas. But critics of the law said it smacks of government intervention.

Chief among the critics is Sky-Italia, which filed a complaint with the European Union charging that the new law's introduction of collective bargaining rights on soccer broadcasts beginning with the 2010-11 season gave an unfair advantage to Silvio Berlusconi-controlled broadcaster Mediaset.

Sky-Italia, a satellite broadcaster in Italy, outbid Mediaset to own the lion's share of soccer broadcast rights here. The company believes that the new law will give Mediaset another chance to regain some of the rights it lost.

Italy's soccer broadcast market is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion.

The EU-level complaint and the Italian competition-related probe appear to set Mediaset and News Corp. -- Sky-Italia's parent company -- on a collision course, even as the two companies try to hammer out a distribution agreement for nonsports content.

Berlusconi and News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch had been allies in Italy for years before Murdoch created Sky-Italia out of two floundering satellite companies, Stream and Telepiu. Since then, the two media tycoons have been rivals, though the two companies struck a friendly note a week ago as Mediaset said it had entered into talks that could see content from Mediaset PPV subsidiary Mediaset Premium distributed on Sky-Italia channels.

When contacted, a Sky-Italia spokesman said that the company continues to believe the collective bargaining law for soccer broadcast rights is problematic.

"Sky believes there are a number of infringements of competition law as well as other legal issues," the spokesman said, applauding the antitrust regulator's decision to look into the case.

Mediaset official declined comment.
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