As Euro 2008 kicked off, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), European football’s governing body, was putting together submissions to the Court of First Instance (CFI), challenging the designation of all matches in the tournament as “listed events” in the United Kingdom. The UK list, formally approved by the Commission in October last year, includes the European Championship Finals as a whole (all 31 matches) and UEFA takes issue with the notion that matches in the group stages of the tournament, which do not even involve a national team from the United Kingdom, can somehow be considered as events of “major importance” for UK society. As we know, none of the “home nations” from the United Kingdom even qualified for Euro 2008.
The Audiovisual Media Services Directive, formerly the Television without Frontiers Directive, (89/552/EEC as amended by 2007/65/EC) lays down the framework conditions in which the public may be guaranteed free access to the broadcast of events deemed to be of “major importance to society”. Article 3a of the Directive allows each Member State to nominate the events that it considers to be of major importance, such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, and these events must be available on free television accessible to a high proportion of the population. To date, the countries that have notified lists to the European Commission are Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom.
The rules governing listed events in the United Kingdom are set out in the Code of Sports and Other Listed Events and Designated Events drawn up by the Independent Television Commission and adopted by Ofcom, the communications sector regulator. The sporting events in the UK’s list are split into two groups. The live rights to Group A events essentially have to be offered to broadcasters providing free-to-air services with national or near national coverage (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4) This basically means that only a very small number of free-to-air broadcasters are bidders for the exclusive live rights to Group A events. On the other hand, Group B events may not be broadcast on an exclusive basis unless adequate provision has been made for secondary coverage (i.e., highlights). In the United Kingdom, the Group A list includes, amongst other things, the Olympic Games, The FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament, The Rugby World Cup Final and The European Football Championship Finals Tournament. The next internal review of the UK’s list is expected in 2009.
UEFA does not object to European Championship matches involving teams from the United Kingdom being considered as being of “major importance to UK society”. Nor does it have a problem with other “gala” matches, such as the final itself or the opening game. It does not, however, see why group matches involving foreign sides should be “protected” in this way. UEFA argues that the listing of such matches infringes its property rights and also leads a highly distorted market for the acquisition of the rights to the European Championships in the United Kingdom. It has also been mentioned that it is somewhat anomalous to suggest that a Group stage match in the Championships between, say, Turkey and the Czech Republic is of “major importance” to UK society, whereas the semi -final of the Rugby World Cup between England and France was apparently not.
The UK Government, it has been suggested, may take some persuading. It apparently regards the European Championships as being of specific interest to the general public in the United Kingdom, not just sports fans. It is not altogether clear, however, what evidence it has relied on to reach this position or whether it has looked at the matter very closely of late.
The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledges that listing inevitably depresses the value of media rights and distorts competition. Nevertheless, doubtless driven on by political considerations, it remains unclear whether the government will revisit the matter. The UK government is bound to intervene in the case to support the European Commission, but it will be the CFI that may ultimately have to decide whether every single match in the European Championships really is of “major importance” to the general public in the United Kingdom.