FIFA Loses Bid to Block Free TV Access to World Cup Matches

Soccer’s global body FIFA lost a fight to block free TV access to World Cup matches after the European Union’s highest court said top games should be available to all viewers if governments insist.

The EU Court of Justice also ruled that European body UEFA can’t prevent fans with access to a TV from watching national teams in European Championship matches for free.

The court in Luxembourg said today it’s for EU countries alone “to determine the events which are of major importance” and available to anyone with a TV set.

A ruling in FIFA’s favor could have ended decades of tradition in the U.K., where the World Cup, the most-watched sporting event, must be shown on free television channels including the British Broadcasting Corp.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, allowed the U.K. in 2007 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 TV, breach the associations’ property rights, FIFA and UEFA had argued.

“The concept of enforcing free-to-air coverage of all 64 matches at the FIFA World Cup distorts the media market, negatively impacting FIFA’s ability to reach football fans with new services,” Zurich-based FIFA said in an e-mailed statement.

Strict Policy

FIFA said it “has a strict policy” regarding free-to-air television “to make at least 22 matches available on that basis.” This includes “all home team matches, the opening match, semi-finals and the final of the FIFA World Cup.”

The 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup coverage “exceeded and will vastly exceed this allocation in Europe,” FIFA said.

UEFA said today’s decision “not only distorts competition in a free market, but also reduces the possibility to generate income that can then be distributed to the amateur game via solidarity payments.”

The top court today clarified that EU countries are obliged to communicate the reasons to the Brussels-based commission that justify why in their view the final stage of the World Cup or the European Championships “constitutes in its entirety, a single event of major importance” in the countries concerned.

‘Avaricious World’

“This is another example of the hard-pressed consumer attacked by the avaricious world of business finance,” Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon & Co in London, said in a phone interview.

“TV rights and consumption of sport is very hot,” he said. “The availability of sports through streaming on tablets, phones and desktops has seen those rights come from nowhere to becoming very valuable. Broadcasters and servers are all trying to figure out how to monetize it all.”

FIFA and UEFA, based in Nyon, Switzerland, were appealing a lower court ruling from 2011 concerning TV access to games on British and Belgian channels.

In the present cases, in the U.K. and in Belgium, the court said “it is apparent” that those games “have always been very popular among the general public” and have traditionally been shown on television for free.

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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