European Ruling may Hit BSkyB and ESPN Soccer Deals

Cross-border restrictions on soccer match access contravene freedom rules, court says.

LONDON – A tenacious pub landlady, satellite decoder cards and a lengthy six-year legal battle could mean a major shakeup for Premier League soccer’s contracts with broadcasters BSkyB and ESPN.

The European Court of Justice, the highest court on the continent, ruled Tuesday that national laws in member states such as the U.K. which prohibit the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards to access soccer from abroad are contrary to the freedom to provide services.

The court decision could trigger a major shake-up for Premier League soccer – the league with Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United among its teams -- and its current exclusive agreements with Sky Sports and ESPN, paving the way to cheaper viewing of foreign broadcasts for fans of top-flight English games.

The Court decision came after an English pub landlady Karen Murphy took her case to the ECJ after she was forced to pay nearly £8,000 ($12,000) in fines and costs for using a cheaper Greek decoder in her Portsmouth pub to bypass controls over match screening.

She argued the ruling violated her rights as an EU citizen. The ECJ agreed.

But while the ruling appears to open up opportunities for individuals to watch overseas broadcasts at home, it remains unclear whether in future games can be shown in pubs using foreign decoders and broadcasts, as the ruling also threw up a number of copyright issues.

The ECJ said national legislation, which banned the use of overseas decoders, could not "be justified either in light of the objective of protecting intellectual property rights or by the objective of encouraging the public to attend football stadiums".

Murphy told the BBC she was relieved to have won this round and that she felt she had “taken on the Premier League and Sky."

The ECJ findings will now go to the High Court in London, which had sent the matter to the ECJ for guidance, for a final ruling.

It is unusual for a member state’s High Court to pass a different judgment from one provided by the ECJ.

But the ECJ did add that while live matches were not protected by copyright, any surrounding media, such as any opening video sequence, the Premier League anthem, pre-recorded films showing highlights of recent Premier League matches and various graphics, were "works" protected by copyright.

To use any of these extra parts associated of a broadcast, a pub would need the permission of the Premier League.

It remains to be seen whether pubs could broadcast match action without using any of these Premier League "extras" and thus breaching the league's copyright.

By ensuring that its branding was on screen all the time, the league may be able to claim pubs were in breach of this ECJ ruling on copyright.

Industry insiders say the Premier League, aware of the potential court decision, is assessing how to sell TV rights going forward.

BBC sports editor David Bond said on the face of it, the ruling “looks like a blow for the Premier League and... broadcasters Sky and ESPN."

Speaking on the lunchtime news bulletin Bond also added the ruling paints a confused picture and may take years to shake out.

The Premier League's television income from mainland Europe is reported to be around £130 million ($200 million), less than 10% of its total £1.4 billion ($2.4 billion) overseas rights deal.

The court decision could have a significant repercussions for other rights holders outside of sport, with life potentially getting more difficult for the movie industry, which also sells its product on an country-by-country basis.

BSkB paid a figure reported to be in excess of £1 billion ($1.5 billion) in February 2009 to retain the live television rights to the majority of the biggest Premier league matches from 2010 until 2013.

ESPN, the Disney-owned broadcaster paid just south of $150 million) for a package of 46 games in the same year and also sealed a deal for a package of 23 games for three seasons from 2010 in a separate deal.

A BSkyB spokesman said: “This is a case about the licensing arrangements of bodies like the Premier League. It will have implications for how rights are sold across Europe in future, which we are considering.  As a broadcaster, it will remain our aim to secure high-quality content for our customers based on the rights available to us.”

ESPN could not be reached for comment at time of going to press.



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