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 EU court approves UK's ban on World Cup rights sale to pay TV companies

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PostSubject: EU court approves UK's ban on World Cup rights sale to pay TV companies   Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:24 pm

The Government is allowed to ban footballing bodies from selling the television rights to the World Cup and European championships to pay television companies, a European court has ruled.

Football governing body FIFA had challenged the UK's designation of the World Cup and the Euro championships as events that can only be shown on terrestrial free to air channels. It had claimed that the move is a restriction on its freedom to trade.

The General Court of the European Union said that the rules were a restriction but were a justified one because the football tournaments were of major importance to society.

There is a list of events that must be available to watch on free to air terrestrial television in the UK. That list includes the whole World Cup tournament and the European Football Championship Finals, or EUROs.

FIFA challenged the right of the UK and Belgian governments to put entire tournaments on that list. While it acknowledged that some games, such as finals or games in which national teams are playing, should be on it, it said that entire tournaments cannot be of enough importance to society to justify inclusion on the list.

The European Commission rejected the claims, and after an appeal the General Court has also rejected FIFA's argument. It said that these tournaments had a wider social importance than other football events and that there was evidence that games attracted large numbers of viewers who were normally not interested in football.

The Court said that 'prime' or 'gala' matches within the tournaments clearly qualified as important enough to be on protected lists. But it said that other 'non-gala' matches might become equally important, dependent on the results of other matches and the progress of a country's national team.

"It cannot be specified in advance – at the time when the national lists are drawn up or broadcasting rights acquired – which matches will actually be decisive for the subsequent stages of those competitions or which ones may affect the fate of a given national team," said a Court statement. "For that reason, the Court holds that the fact that certain ‘non-prime’ or ‘non-gala’ matches may affect whether a team advances to the ‘prime’ or ‘gala’ matches may justify a Member State’s decision to consider that all of the matches of those competitions are of major importance for society."

The Court recognised that preventing FIFA from selling broadcast rights to pay television companies, which have historically paid more for sports rights, restricts its ability to earn the highest income from the operation of tournaments, this was counter-balanced by the benefit to society of having free access to matches.

"Although such a categorisation restricts freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment, that restriction may be justified, since it is intended to protect the right to information and to ensure wide public access to television broadcasts of events of major importance for society," said the statement. The ruling has not yet been published.

The European Commission must approve countries lists of restricted events, and it has done so for eight EU countries.

"The European Commission welcomes the EU General Court's ruling," said a Commission statement. "The Court found that the Commission acted correctly in approving the lists of events of UK and Belgium
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