TV rights: The Future of Football is at risk!

It’s 1.30pm on a Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t get a ticket for the match and I am not playing myself due to a list of injuries that have kept me out longer than Darren Anderton. I am at a bit of a loose end to tell you the truth.

The only remaining option is to watch Soccer Saturday & listen to others getting excited about a game I want to be at. Don’t get me wrong Soccer Saturday has its place, but to me it is much like a strip club: you get teased for a couple of hours and then you’re left hanging. Or not as the case maybe.

Then, like an angel from above, my mate Dave calls to inform me that him and some mates are going to watch the game at the pub, and would I like to join them. Yes, I most certainly would.

The prospect of actually watching a game at 3pm on a Saturday is very appealing. I know it will be via foreign TV rather than an Internet stream that breaks up every 30 seconds, plus I don’t have to suffer the Soccer Saturday panellists making noises worse than a female tennis player on heat.

It is illegal but I will watch it because it won’t be me getting in to trouble and to be honest, I genuinely did all I can to get a ticket for the match and couldn’t. And of course, I desperately don’t want to miss out!

After yesterday’s ruling in favour in of football freedom fighter Karen Murphy, missing out could be a scenario of the past.

The Background: Pub landlady Karen Murphy was showing live Premier League games via a Greek decoder (sat box) because it is cheaper than having it via Sky and she got busted by the police. £8,000 in fines later and she has been in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), fighting her corner as she feels she should have more choice than just Sky as this is a monopoly.

The Ruling: The ECJ said ‘national laws which prohibit the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards are contrary to the freedom to provide services’.

In short, because of this EU world we live in, the same way we have freedom to work within other EU states, the ECJ see no reason as to why foreign TV services cannot be used in the UK, ruling in favour of Karen Murphy. Also the sale of rights on a country-by-country basis breaches EU law. Another potential breach is around copyright issues. Although live matches are not covered by copyright, any production pre/post game or at half time as well as the use of music, production highlights and the Premier League logo are covered. This impacts on pubs that show Premier League matches by non-sky decoders. So what does it mean to football and us fans?

The Premier League:The EPL currently sells its TV rights to each country on a separate basis for ‘X’ amount, every country bids in a secret bidding process and the highest bidder gets the rights. This ensures the Premier League maximises its money from the sale of TV rights, funding Premier League clubs which has been the backbone to the growth of the Premier League so far. The ECJ ruling means the rights will now be sold as one EU package to the highest bidder which will undoubtedly go for less money due to the lack of companies with the ability to bid for a full EU rights package. What single company could afford to by such a product? Which TV companies are big enough to handle this type of contract and also have the desire for such a move in this financial climate? I will tell you who, BSkyB (Sky). Someone could challenge, but few have the means, therefore Sky may pay less than the Premier League would get on a country-by-country basis as they would be unopposed, meaning less money for the Premier League and it’s clubs. Theoretically Sky would then resell coverage to each country, making a profit on what they paid the Premier League for the package and a percentage of the profits that the Premier League used to get will now line Sky’s pockets. Sky would have more control and a direct relationship with foreign TV channels which would cover their backs, especially around copyright issues, and offer protection against mavericks like Karen Murphy. Sky don’t want to risk losing the £2m per season they currently get from pubs subscriptions and will be hell bent on making sure they don’t lose out. Alternatively Sky could drop their prices to compete with the price of getting an EU decoder.

We're cool...

The fans:In the short term it will mean more opportunity to watch matches, but less quality. Whilst this is still in court and until all laws are adapted to counteract this scenario, don’t be surprised to see Premier League games via foriegn decoders shown in your local pub. Longer term the current TV rights deals expire in 2013 and the contracts are out to tender at the end of this season. At this point the laws could be adapted to change the current law which is flawed, making it as difficult as possible to show games in pubs. If you have a foreign box at home for personal use, in light of the ECJ findings, this should not cause any problems.

The Clubs: There will be less money for the Premier League because they can’t sell the European rights for as much as they were and this will be a bad thing for the league and its clubs. Fans being able to watch games at home or in the pub can only be bad news to clubs. The better news here is for fans. More choice and availability will mean the clubs worst fears could come true and if people stop going to games as regularly because they are watching matches at home or in the pub, it will scare the clubs especially if attendances start to dwindle. So they will most likely lower ticket prices and also the cost of merchandise to maximise match day revenue.

But if Premier League clubs suffer a drop in revenue, with attendances down, and players on big contracts, then long term the existence of many Premier League clubs could be in jeopardy as they will run at a big loss, which is unsustainable for any business. Then, as a knock on effect, Premier League clubs could have to sell their big stars making the quality of the league a far cry from what we have now.

This is all worst case scenario stuff and nothing is finalised as the case goes back to the High Court for a final ruling in light of the ECJ’s own findings. Make no bones about it; this is squeaky bum time for everyone, regardless of the public face everyone is putting on at the moment.

The Premier League will hope their lawyers tie up the T&C’s so tight for the next tender that nothing can be done to get round them despite the ECJ’s ruling and that the rules around copyright in this situation become clearer. Pubs for example could be in breach copyright law if there is any Premier League/Sky production so they wouldn’t be able to show games via a foreign decoder unless it is just the live match footage. Sky will probably do better in this scenario if they buy the EU rights and redistribute them throughout Europe. They will ultimately becoming more powerful, taking more market share at a cheaper price and redistribute it for bigger profits, but it will mean less money for the Premier League and its clubs. If the courts cannot prove the breach in copyright via a foreign decoder to be an offence then pubs and the public could have free-reign to watch football via a satellite box from any EU country that has the coverage.

As for Karen Murphy and her pub, this will depend on the final ruling. But she and other pub owners could lose out at the end of this; if production quality and the general experience of watching football in your local pub goes down and foreign decoders become more widespread in people’s homes with it being a cheaper and better quality experience, pubs could be in trouble. This is a noble quest that has probably become bigger than Karen Murphy imagined it ever would and there is a long way to go yet. One thing is for sure, whatever happens, this is just the start of things to come. Welcome to a new digital age.

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