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European Court Dismisses Appeals in Relation to Football Broadcasting Rights

Last February, the European General Court (formerly the European Court of First Instance) upheld the right of EU Member States to require certain major sporting events to be shown on ‘free to air’ television.

In three separate but related judgments, the General Court rejected appeals by FIFA (the governing body for world soccer) against decisions of each of the relevant Belgian and UK authorities and also an appeal by UEFA (the governing body of European football) against a separate decision of the UK authorities. Belgium has listed the FIFA World Cup for free transmission whereas the UK has ‘protected’ both the World Cup and the UEFA-run European Championships.

The EU’s Television without Frontiers Directive provides that each Member State may take measures to ensure that broadcasters under its jurisdiction do not show on an exclusive basis events which are regarded as of ‘major importance to society’ by that Member State in such a way as to deprive a substantial proportion of the public in that Member State of the possibility of following such events via live coverage or deferred coverage on ‘free to air’ television. The relevant lists of events of major importance, be they national or international, must be drawn up in a clear and transparent manner.

The Court found that both the World Cup and the European Championship tournaments may each be treated as a single event, rather than as a series of individual events divided into ‘prime’ matches and ‘non-prime’ matches.

The General Court held that FIFA and UEFA’s intellectual property rights may be restricted in attendance of overriding reasons in the public interest, such as television access for the general public to events of major importance. The Court stipulated that restrictions placed on FIFA and UEFA’s freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment, and on competition are justified, since they are intended to protect the right to information and to ensure wide public access to TV broadcasts of major sporting and other events.

This judgment represents a significant setback for both governing bodies in their ongoing efforts to monetise their respective showpiece tournaments.

Contributed by Cormac Little.