So How Does The EU Breaking Football TV Rights Monopolies Benefit Me?

 by Martin Belam, 14 September 2005

There has been much talk in the press over the last few days about the EU rippling muscles and threatening BSkyB's monopoly on Premiership television rights in the UK.

The thing is I understand how monopolies were historically used by royalty to generate revenue, and have gradually come to be seen as a terrible evil in a free market economy. I also understand that competition for services drives up efficiency and drives down prices. However, I still fail to see how breaking up a monopoly over the coverage of one football competition benefits me as a consumer, or the game as a whole.

All of the rhetoric from the EU and OFCOM seems to assume that one of the terrestrial channels will pick up the scraps of a secondary contract, and lo and behold the consumer gets some free football. However, there is no "crown jewels" guarantee that this will happen.

Currently I don't get much football at home, as I have Sky but I no longer subscribe to the Sports channels (in a false economy drive I think - I probably spend more money now going out to watch 'big' matches at the pub than we ever did on the monthly subscription - case in point I'm writing the first draft of this in the pub whilst watching tonight's Champions League matches). Prior to this season however I knew that I could watch any football on terrestrial television, and any subscription football on Sky.

What happens if the next deal splits the rights between BSkyB and NTL, and NTL then decide to use their proportion of the matches as a driver for the take up of cable services? If I don't live in an NTL area, or don't have a cable box, I can't watch the games. Or what if Home Choice decide that the exclusive acquisition of some Premiership matches is the perfect marketing vehicle to drive their combined broadband/TV-over-IP proposition. If I want to keep all of the football do I have to subscribe to both Sky and Home Choice?

I don't understand where the advantage is for the consumer - every time the football rights change I might have to change my service provider, or might find I can't get the football according to a geographical lottery of where Telewest have cabled for example, or where five is available through analogue free-to-air television.

During the World Cup and European Championships the consumer is able to exercise choice when ITV and BBC go head-to-head over vital England matches. Unless there is more than one service provider for each match in the new Premiership deals, then there is only an illusion of consumer choice. After all, they don't announce which matches are on TV for the duration of the season at the start, so you wouldn't even be able to make an informed choice of provider based on which matches they would be showing. Splitting the rights between broadcastors makes sense. Potentially splitting the rights between rival broadcast infrastructures is an entirely different thing in terms of cost to the consumer.

Beyond the issue of what it costs to the consumer, there is the issue of how it impacts on the game itself.

Football has done a pretty good job over the last twenty years with the Premiership and the almost closed entry to the Champions League to make sure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Splitting the domestic TV deal can only make this trend worse. Without the cachet of exclusivity, what is the incentive to broadcast loss-leaders like Bolton vs. Fulham, or Wigan vs. Blackburn. Two companies fighting over the Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool games can only lead to those clubs generating even more television revenue.

Of course, breaking up the collective bargaining of a league competition is something that some of the richer vested interests in football have been after for a long time, and is the first step to teams being in control of the TV rights for their own home games regardless of the competition. It was a poor day for football when away teams no longer got a share of the gate revenue. It will be a poorer day for football when the Chelsea's and Manchester United's are basking in running their own digital TV stations with exclusive match coverage, whilst the Wigan's and Portsmouth's are only able to sell their TV rights to stations when they are playing the over-mighty bigger fish.

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