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Premier League TV ruling is victory for lawyers not hard-pressed fans | David Conn

The EU has nothing effective to say on the relationship between mega-bucks spectator sport and the games people play

A body bearing the name European court of justice might be expected to deliver wise judgments to make the heart sing, not decisions such as the one in the Premier League v Portsmouth landlady case which destroy the will to read.

When the EU becomes involved in sport, the organisation which speaks for all Europe seems too often wrapped up in a language all of its own. Although the cause at stake – the right to watch football on TV in a pub on a Saturday afternoon – may not appear quite to justify accession to the battlefields of Europe, the decision was keenly awaited because Karen Murphy’s fight did seem to encapsulate an important public gut-concern.

That, it has to be said, did not turn out to be the same as the court’s chief concern, which was whether “the practice of broadcasters paying a premium to ensure themselves absolute territorial exclusivity may result in artificial price differences between the partitioned national markets”.

When the European Commission twice in the 2000s challenged the Premier League clubs’ right to sell their TV rights collectively as a league, the EU seemed to be demanding answers to a question no sports fan had asked, then delivering an outcome nobody wanted.

The government rallied round the Premier League then, trying to persuade the commission that selling TV rights as a league, so that broadcasters’ money can be shared to some extent among the clubs, helps keep football together and enables some semblance of competition between big and small clubs. Nobody here was lobbying for every club to sell the rights to all its matches individually. Ultimately the Premier League was allowed to maintain collective selling, promising our government it would distribute “5% of income” to the grass roots. Then other broadcasters, first Setanta which went bust with the effort, now ESPN, were forcibly introduced, actually making televised football more, not less, expensive for consumers.

Murphy’s case attracted instinctive support not only because she was seen as a doughty individual up against the corporate beasts of the Premier League and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky. Many fans feel that Sky’s control over live football is an expensive stranglehold. This is the 20th season since the Premier League formed as a breakaway precisely so the top clubs could keep, and not share, all the pay TV bonanza about to flow into football and since then not a single match has been shown live on free-to-air television.

Saturday 3pm matches in pubs are generally watched by people who cannot get a ticket, or afford to buy a ticket, to watch their teams live. As Sky charges eye-watering subscriptions to pubs fighting to stay in business, there seemed some valour to Murphy’s fight. Yet the EU does not look at these issues for how best to serve competing interests. Instead it views all things through the prism of untrammelled free competition throughout Europe. As the judgment said, “completion of the internal market” is the fundamental aim for whose furtherance it must decide disputes.

So the verdict is that Murphy won the right in principle to show matches in her pub from a Greek broadcaster but lost really because the coverage bears the Premier League’s logo, it has copyright and can refuse to let her show it. Thinking of the fine minds gathered together in Luxembourg to produce that logic can bring tears to the eyes.

The winner of this judgment is a person who can now buy a TV box and decoding card from overseas, which may but will probably not cost a little less than subscribing to Sky and ESPN, and watch English football at home on a Saturday afternoon with Greek commentary.

On the issues which do matter regarding football and television: there will still be no games live on free-to-air TV and football will remain punitively expensive for pubs. The Premier League’s investment in the grass roots is now running below that original promise to make “a minimum of 5% of income available”. But the EU has nothing effective to say about the relationship between mega-bucks spectator sport and the games people actually play.

The Premier League was sanguine, saying it was working with its lawyers on how best to defend its commercial rights from the judgment, possibly by selling a licence across Europe. That confirmed the overriding impression that the court had produced a victory for lawyers, not for hard-pressed football supporters or for the landladies of pubs in Portsmouth. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds