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LONDON — Free-to-air broadcasters in the U.K. breathed a sigh of relief on Friday after world and European soccer governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, lost an appeal against a European ruling that said the World Cup and Euro Championships should be on free TV here.
The soccer governing bodies’ money men were hoping the European Court of Justice — Europe’s Supreme Court — would overturn a previous European court ruling that said the U.K. could keep the events on a list of “protected” events of national sporting interest that are broadcast for free.
The list of sporting events — dubbed “the crown jewels” — also includes the Olympics, Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the Rugby Union World Cup final.
The ruling means that the World Cup and Euro Championships should be shown on free-to-air TV in the U.K. and that the two tournaments cannot be sold exclusively to pay-TV companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s pay-TV satellite operator BSkyB.
FIFA and UEFA had appealed the original 2011 ruling after saying they could not sell the events fairly for their real value.
The ECJ said the original decision in the General Court (formerly Court of First Instance) in 2011 was correct.
The BBC and ITV had already secured the shared rights to broadcast the soccer World Cup finals in 2014, and they were guaranteed of being shown free-to-air.
FIFA earned a minimum of $2 billion in TV and media rights deals for the South Africa 2010 World Cup while UEFA makes hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of its TV rights to the European Championships.
The World Cup and European Championships happen every four years, two years apart.
Pay-TV rights for soccer are currently big business and a battleground, as U.K. telecom giant BT Sports and BSkyB duke it out for soccer Premier League TV rights ahead of the forthcoming 2013-2014 season.
BT has shelled out $1.1 billion (£738 million) over three years for the rights to 38 live matches a season, while Sky paid $3.5 billion (£2.3 billion) for 116 matches a season.
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 U.K., should those countries qualify for the finals, as would the opening games, semi-finals and the final.
But it was the other dozens of games featuring non-U.K. teams that FIFA argued should not be shown for free in the U.K.
The U.K. countered 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.
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 without charge.
Belgium was also successful in keeping the rights to World Cup and European Championship matches on free-to-air services.
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