UEFA, FIFA May Lose EU Fight Over Exclusive Soccer TV Rights

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Soccer fans should be allowed to watch World Cup and European Championship games for free, an adviser to European Union’s top court urged today in a setback to bids by FIFA and UEFA to hold on to exclusive pay-TV deals.

EU nations can include the World and Euro championships in lists of events that are “of major importance” to society and can “require that they be broadcast on free-to-air television,” Niilo Jaeaeskinen, an advocate general at the EU Court of Justice, said in a non-binding opinion today. The Luxembourg-based court follows such advice in most cases.

FIFA and UEFA, the global and European soccer governing bodies, are appealing a lower court ruling concerning the U.K. and Belgium that determined fans with access to a TV should be able to watch World Cup and European Championship matches, which involve national teams, for free.

A ruling in FIFA’s favor could end decades of tradition in the U.K., where the World Cup, the most-watched sporting event, must be broadcast on free-to-air television. The February 2011 decision by the EU General Court echoed an earlier non-binding opinion by an adviser to the region’s top court in a case involving the Premier League and exclusive broadcasting deals.

The advocate general today rejected arguments by FIFA and UEFA that limits to their exclusive broadcasting rights violate their property right.

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Representatives of FIFA and UEFA, based in Zurich and Nyon, Switzerland, declined to comment on the opinion.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive agency, in 2007 allowed the U.K. to earmark all World Cup games and the final tournament of UEFA’s European Football Championship for free-to-air television broadcast. That and the approval of a similar decision by Belgium to limit World Cup games only to free television, breach the associations’ property rights, FIFA and UEFA had argued.

In its 2007 decision concerning the U.K. list, the commission said events such as the World Cup and European Championship Finals “have a special general resonance in the U.K. in their entirety, as they are particularly popular with the general public,” not just those who regularly watch.

The court’s adviser said that while they are listed in the EU law on television broadcasting as events of major importance “that does not mean that the entirety of those sporting events may, in all cases, be included” on EU nation’s list “irrespective of the interest which they arouse” as tournaments to be broadcast free of charge.

The cases are: C-201/11 P UEFA v. Commission; C-204/11 P FIFA v. Commission; C-205/11 P FIFA v. Commission.

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