Anyone for Slovakia v Paraguay?

Should all games in the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships be available on free-to-air television?

This was the decision facing the European General Court (EGC) recently, when it was asked to determine whether the UK’s categorisation of those matches as “listed events” was compatible with European law. The EGC ruled that the tournaments should each be considered to be “single events” for the purposes of the “listed events” regime rather than a series of individual games and hence all matches should be made available on free-to-air television.

To put this in context, the UK (like other European territories) has the power to designate certain events which are of “major importance for society” as listed events, which must be made available on free-to-air television. Whilst most countries protect only games in those tournaments featuring their national teams, the UK and Belgium are the only territories currently reserving every single match in the entire tournament for their terrestrial channels.

Whilst we all like to be able to say that we’ve spotted the next African superstar or Eastern European wonder kid in an obscure group game, can it legitimately be claimed that matches such as Slovakia v Paraguay or Honduras v Switzerland are events of “major importance for society” in the UK?

FIFA and UEFA believe that they are not, and that protecting games in this way means that they receive less revenue from the sale of TV rights packages than they would if those rights were sold in a competitive auction. They argue that the value of the rights is diminished because the two main UK territorial broadcasters (BBC and ITV) come to an arrangement to share the rights between them to broadcast the tournaments, rather than try and outbid each other for the total packages on offer.

One of the effects of this, according to FIFA and UEFA, is that they have less money to spend on grassroots football. This may be greeted with scepticism by those who accuse these governing bodies of doing anything but investing in this part of the game, but there is no doubt that this form of protectionism leads to less money being deposited in the “football pot”.

However, in endorsing the earlier decision of the European Commission, the position of the EGC that the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships are each to be regarded as single events rather than individual matches is clear. This is also consistent with the approach favoured by the independent advisory panel (chaired by David Davies, the former chief executive of the FA) which reviewed the UK listed events regime in 2009.

It therefore seems unlikely that the Government will change this element of the list when they review its contents again in 2013, so we can all look forward to settling down to El Salvador v Guatemala on BBC1 during the 2014 World Cup.
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Adam Leadercramer is a senior lawyer at onside law, a boutique law firm specialising in the sport and entertainment sectors. Adam regularly advises players, clubs, third party investors, agents and others involved in the football industry, and is a Millwall season ticket holder.