UK scores winner against FIFA in World Cup TV battle

FIFA and UEFA have lost an appeal against a European ruling, which stated that football tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships should be shown on free-to-air television in the United Kingdom.

The European Court of Justice has confirmed that the original decision made in 2011 by the European General Court, which said that the UK could keep the tournaments on a list of ”protected” events of national sporting interest was correct. The ruling means that the events will continue to be broadcast for free to the UK public.

If FIFA and UEFA had won the case, matches featuring England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would still have remained free to watch, as would the opening games, semi-finals and final of the international football tournaments.

The dispute in this particular case centred around whether there was a right to show the other games (featuring non-UK teams) for free. FIFA and UEFA had argued that the current arrangement interfered with their ability to sell television rights to the tournaments and realise the full commercial value in the marketplace.

It was reported that FIFA earned a minimum of $2bn (£1.3bn) in TV and media rights for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The business of sporting television rights is a lucrative one and we can only assume the addition of newcomer BT Sport to the area of sports broadcasting could have helped FIFA and UEFA obtain the best commercial price for their product if they had been given the green light to sell the rights to specific matches exclusively to pay-TV channels.

However, the Court agreed with the UK’s assertion that the World Cup and European Championships were an important part of the list of sporting “crown jewels” that must be made available to the whole population on terrestrial television.

The Court added that European states were within their rights to select broadcast events, “which they deem to be of a major importance for society” and broadcast them for free. In addition to the UK, Belgium was also successful in retaining the rights to the World Cup and European Championships for terrestrial services.

While the argument that matches such as Switzerland v Honduras should be deemed to be of “national interest” does appear to hold less weight, the decision by the Court to ‘protect’ these events was not seen as a surprise. However, significantly, the decision does mean that FIFA and UEFA have no further recourse and must accept the judgement of the European Courts.