English Premier League: TV Rights sales investigation dropped

By Prof Dr Ian Blackshaw

The UK Media Regulator, Ofcom, announced on 8 August, 2016 that it was dropping its two-year investigation into whether the sale of English Premier League TV Rights restricted competition in a business/economic sense.

This investigation had been prompted by a complaint by Virgin Media that all 380 English Premiership games should be shown on live TV, arguing that this would limit price increases for the benefit of consumers. The basis of this argument was that, by limiting the number of matches, the League had inflated the price that broadcasters had to pay and this cost was passed on to consumers.

It will be recalled that the live domestic rights to the League for the three seasons 2016-2019 were sold for a record sum of £5.136 billion.

Ofcom stated that the League’s intention to increase the number of its live matches from 168 to 190 beginning with the 2019-2020 season and its own research into the views of match-going and TV-watching fans justified its decision to drop the investigation.

It appears that the research found that whilst 20% of fans wanted more matches on TV, a similar percentage were satisfied with the overall number of live matches being broadcast, but wanted to see different games shown.

As regards match-going fans, more than two thirds of them stated that the Saturday kick-off of 3 pm was their preferred time to go to watch a game.

Ofcom were of the opinion that a balance needed to be struck between the potential benefits of releasing more matches for live broadcast, and the potential disruption to match-going fans due to these games having to be rescheduled to be broadcast outside the ‘closed period’ of 2 45 pm to 5 15 pm on Saturdays. It will be recalled that this so-called ‘blackout period’ had been in place since the 1950s, in order to protect attendances at lower league matches.

In the Statement giving their reasons for dropping their investigation, Ofcom went on to say:

“Due to the range of views expressed in the consumer research, significant further work -including additional research among football fans – would be required to conclude this investigation. Given the considerations outlined above, we have decided to close the investigation. Ofcom’s resources could be use more effectively on other priorities to benefit consumers and competition.”

A somewhat surprising conclusion for a competition watchdog!

Prof Dr Ian Blackshaw is an International Sports Lawyer, Academic, Author and a Member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He may be contacted by e-mail at ‘ian.blackshaw@orange.fr’