Top sports must be broadcast free in U.K.

World Cups, Wimbledon, Olympics on 'protected' list

BRUSSELS -- The soccer World Cup, the Wimbledon tennis finals, the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup are among Britain's "protected" events that can only be broadcast on free-to-air television.

The European Commission -- the European Union's executive authority -- said Monday that it has cleared the U.K.'s list of events that broadcasters must offer to the general public. Under EU rules, any broadcaster that wins exclusive rights to these events has to make them freely available on channels received by at least 95% of British homes.

Other top events on the sporting list include the Rugby League Challenge Cup final, soccer's European football championship finals tournament, FA Cup final and the Scottish FA Cup final (in Scotland), and the Grand National and Derby horse races.

A separate list that sets rules for "adequate secondary coverage" includes the Ryder Cup, the British Open, the Commonwealth Games, cricket test matches played in England, the Cricket World Cup and the World Athletics Championship. The second list requires that highlights of the events must be made freely available to the general public after a reasonable interval of time.

The decision comes just two days after more than 12 million viewers in Britain -- 51% of the television audience -- tuned in to watch England beat France in the Rugby World Cup semifinals on ITV1, the main commercial broadcaster. ITV bosses now expect 15 million to watch Saturday's final, topping the viewing figures for England's Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003.

"The U.K. not only has a tradition of organizing major sporting events that attract significant TV audiences all over Europe but it also has a very well-developed market for the sale of broadcasting rights for such events," EU Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding said. "The U.K. list covers sports events that have universal appeal and should be made accessible to the widest possible audiences."

Under EU rules, national governments are able to protect popular and important sporting events so that they are available to the wider public. The selected events "must have a special national resonance, not simply a significance to those who ordinarily follow the sport concerned; it is an event which serves to unite the nation; a shared point in the national calendar," the rules say.

This means that certain sporting events must be offered free to audiences even if a foreign or encrypted broadcaster buys rights to the event. The rules have been in place since 1997, with Austria, Belgium, Finland, France Germany, Ireland, Italy and the U.K. having provided national lists to the commission.