By Keith Weir
LONDON, July 18 (Reuters) – Britain and Belgium can keep major sports events like soccer’s World Cup on free TV, the European Union’s top court ruled on Thursday, rejecting appeals from the sport’s governing bodies that wanted to sell them instead to cash-rich pay TV companies.
FIFA, world soccer’s ruling body, and UEFA, its European counterpart, had challenged existing rules saying all 64 games in the World Cup must be shown on free-to-air channels in Britain and Belgium to ensure as many viewers as possible can watch. In Britain, the rule also applies to the European soccer championship.
FIFA and UEFA argued the regulation deprived them of revenues from selling rights to their most popular events. In Britain, the rules mean the World Cup finals and Euro tournaments are shared between the BBC and ITV. In Belgium, public broadcasters VRT (Dutch) and RTBF (French) have the World Cup rights.
“The Court dismisses the appeals brought by FIFA and UEFA in their entirety,” the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said in a statement on Thursday.
he European Union’s highest court noted that international tournaments appealed to many British and Belgian viewers and had long been shown on free television there.
PAY TV DILEMMA
Pay TV operators like BSkyB in Britain have invested heavily in rights to sports like Premier League soccer and English test cricket, in order to build up their business.
Major sports bodies often face the dilemma of signing up for lucrative pay TV contracts or keeping wider exposure – and advertisers – by sticking with channels available in all homes.
FIFA, which earned more than $2.4 billion in TV rights from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, said it was disappointed with the court decision.
FIFA said its policy was to ensure that a national team’s games were on free TV in their home country, as well as the opening match, semi-finals and finals of a World Cup. Other games in the month-long tournament could be left to pay TV.
FIFA and UEFA both said the decision prevented a free market in soccer rights and robbed them of money that could be used to support the games at lower levels.
“Such market distortion could also impact on FIFA’s ability to generate funds from the FIFA World Cup which it redistributes through the entire pyramid of football worldwide,” FIFA said.
Britain also protects the live TV rights to Olympic Games and Wimbledon tennis, both of which remain the preserve of the publically-funded BBC.
“We welcome the judgment handed down today – upholding the UK’s list of sporting events that can and should be enjoyed on free-to-air television,” a spokesman for the government’s Department of Culture, Media & Sport said.