New EC restrictions could jeopardise BSkyB’s Premier League monopoly

BSkyB may have seen off the competition to pick up the exclusive rights to broadcast live coverage of the Football League’s competitions, but the satellite company will not have such an easy ride when it comes to securing future rights to Premier League matches.

BSkyB has exclusive rights to broadcast all Premier League games under a deal that runs until 2007. However, reports suggest that the broadcaster could be forced to halve its coverage as a consequence of restrictions that the European Commission is seeking to impose on the Premier League’s media rights after 2007. The EC is thought to have suggested to the Premier League a cap, so that no one broadcaster has the rights to broadcast more than half the games.

Setanta, the Irish television group that lost out to BSkyB in this round of bidding for the Football League’s rights, is also thought to be gearing up to make a knock-out bid for the rights to the Premier League in 2007. It is said to have made an approach to Trevor East, BSkyB’s deputy head of sport, to help it in this task.

Under BSkyB’s new-year deal with the Football League, it has agreed to broadcast about 100 live matches per season for competitions including the Coca-Cola Football League and the Carling Cup. The deal extends a partnership begun in 1995, when the Football League’s then media partner ITV Digital collapsed, and applies for three years through to the 2008/9 season. ITV Sport has also extended its highlights agreement for the same period. The two deals are together thought to be worth &£110m, an increase on the Football’s League’s existing four-year contract, said to be worth &£100m.

Exclusive coverage of Premier League matches has been crucial in attracting and retaining subscribers for BSkyB, and that fact has given the EC cause for concern. Former competition commissioner Mario Monti argued that the exclusive coverage of all Premier League games put BSkyB at an unfair advantage and he sought to give other broadcasters a slice of the action when the rights last came up.

The Premier League eventually bowed to pressure and instead of selling all the rights en masse divided them up into four packages. But BSkyB again outbid rivals, paying &£1bn for the 2004 to 2007 football seasons.

Undeterred, the EC claims to have extracted an agreement from the Premier League that any tendering procedures for future TV rights will ensure that there are at least two broadcasters of live Premier League matches. At the time, it envisaged the sale of a number of packages, with the proviso that no one broadcaster be allowed to buy them all.

The cap that is being mooted would be one way of ensuring that the EC’s aims are met. However, the Premier League, the EC and BSkyB refuse to comment. A spokesman for the Premier League simply says: “Discussions are ongoing.” But the Premier League and BSkyB have historically both taken the line that a bid process for the broadcast rights that is open to all without limitation is the most commercially competitive way of selling them.

It is not clear whether the new competition commissioner Neelie Kroes, who has enlisted the aid of Ofcom, will take the same hard line that her predecessor has tried to. In January, the EU allowed the Bundesliga – the football league competition for Germany’s two top divisions – to keep the exclusive TV broadcast rights together, provided some match coverage goes to new media operators, such as internet and third-generation mobile telephone companies.

The EC has said it will not investigate a deal in France that gives Canal Plus exclusive rights to top-flight football on the basis that no complaints about the deal have been received.

However, the EC has a few scores to settle in the UK and the Premier League and BSkyB may not be let off so lightly.

Amanda Wilkinson

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