UK: Challenge To The Premier League’s Broadcasting Rights

Last Updated: 8 December 2014
Article by Oliver Price

Ofcom has opened an investigation into the joint selling arrangements by the Premier League for live UK audio-visual media rights for Premier League football matches.

Ofcom's investigation into the sale of Premier League (PL) television rights in the UK(*1) follows a complaint made by Virgin Media in September 2014 claiming that consumers were suffering through the PL's rights auction process.

The PL is the richest football league in the world and sells broadcasting rights on behalf of its member clubs collectively. With broadcasting revenues its major income, the PL is widely regarded as the best rights holder at segmenting those rights and maximising its revenues: the latest UK rights auction saw BT and BSKYB pay a combined £3bn for their broadcasting rights to the 2013-2016 seasons, an increase of 70% on the previous deal(*2).

The Investigation

Virgin Media's complaint alleges that the PL's method of collectively selling rights packages limits the PL matches that are available for broadcast in the UK (currently 41%) and that this has resulted in consumers being charged the highest prices in Europe to watch top flight football.

Ofcom's investigation will now assess whether the object or effect of the collective selling of the PL UK(*3) broadcasting rights is the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the UK and/or the EU(*4).

Background

The challenge to the collective selling of PL rights is nothing new and Ofcom's announcement follows a European Commission (EC) investigation into the PL in 2002(*5). The EC investigation resulted in a formal settlement where the PL agreed to sell its live television rights in six packages (both smaller and more balanced than previously) and to sell those rights to a minimum of two broadcasters from 2007 onwards(*6).

The latest (2012) PL UK rights auction involved 7 packages of live broadcasting rights (154 matches) of which BSKYB won 5 packages and BT won 2 packages (116 and 38 matches respectively). There were further packages of near-live matches (won by BSKYB), TV highlights (won by the BBC), mobile and internet clips (won by News UK) and radio rights (won by the BBC and talkSport).

Conclusions

The Virgin Media complaint seems timed to bite just before the next PL auction kicks off in 2015 where the UK broadcasting rights for the 2016-2019 PL seasons are tipped to reach the £5bn mark.

Virgin Media's argument that increasing the supply of matches will reduce costs will carry favour with consumers; as will their protest that PL matches should not be broadcast on an exclusive basis (which effectively forces consumers to choose between BSKYB and BT, or pay for both packages).

However, the claim is also designed to improve Virgin Media's chances in future bidding for broadcasting rights (where it is currently priced out of the running) and reduce the squeeze of the carriage fees levied by both BSKYB and BT (access to premium sports channels between broadcasters has been highly contentious for a number of years).

The 2015 Auction

Ofcom announced on 18 November 2014 that it was yet to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to issue a statement of objections against the PL and so, with no time frame given for its investigations, it remains to be seen whether any action will be taken.
The PL may already be planning to include more matches and packages in next year's auction in order to generate even more revenue for its clubs. Whilst this challenge to the status quo should be good news for consumers and other broadcasters, there will be considerable pressure from the Government and lower league clubs to retain the current limits on live broadcasts, particularly the 2.45pm to 5.15pm embargo on Saturdays, in order to protect attendances (which remain a club's largest source of revenue) and to preserve grassroots football.

Virgin Media's challenge comes at a time where the value of some of the PL's rights are arguably already under threat: mobile and internet clips are increasingly posted online for free , the viewing figures for BSKYB's near-live matches are low, and the PL is having to take steps to combat live streaming from broadcasters in other territories . So there may be opportunities for other broadcasters to access rights in next year's auction. However, regardless of the Virgin Media challenge, the ever increasing value of the live broadcasting rights looks set to continue and the PL will resist any Ofcom decision that threatens its billion dollar auction.

*1 Case CW/01138/09/14
*2 http://www.itv.com/news/2014-09-30/virgin-media-urge-ofcom-to-investigate-premier-league-over-how-tv-rights-are-sold/
*3 In breach of the Chapter I prohibition of the Competition Act 1998
*4 In breach of Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union
*5 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-02-1951_en.htm?locale=en
*6 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-06-356_en.htm?locale=en

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