U.K. Regulator Probes Sale of Soccer TV Rights

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U.K. media regulator Ofcom will investigate how England’s top soccer league sells television rights, after cable-TV provider Virgin Media Inc. complained the process breaches competition law and drives up prices for consumers.

Virgin Media said collective selling of live rights by the Premier League and a limit of 41 percent of games broadcast -- a lower proportion than in some other leading European leagues -- is increasing prices for TV packages with premium sports channels, Ofcom said in a statement today.

“This case is at an early stage and Ofcom has not reached a view as to whether there is sufficient evidence of an infringement of competition law for it to issue a statement of objections,” the agency said.

British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, the U.K.’s biggest pay-TV company, and BT Group Plc, the country’s former phone monopoly, together paid a record 3 billion pounds ($4.7 billion) to win the bidding to show Premier League matches in June 2012. BT and BSkyB, which increased spending on the soccer rights by 40 percent, rely on exclusive sports broadcasts to retain and win subscribers.

“The Premier League currently sells its audio-visual rights in a way that is compatible with U.K. and EU competition law and will continue to do so,” the London-based organization said in an e-mailed statement. “We will be able to demonstrate that as part of this process.”

Virgin Media said in its September complaint that it had no interest in bidding for the rights to matches.

“The rapidly rising cost of Premier League live broadcast rights means U.K. fans pay the highest prices in Europe to watch football on TV,” Brigitte Trafford, Virgin Media’s chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement.

Ofcom said it’s aware of the probable timing of the next TV rights auction, which is expected in 2015, and is open to talks with the Premier League about its plans.