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Eleven Sports challenges football ‘Blackout’ by broadcasting La Liga games

Eleven Sports, the global sports provider, has contravened UEFA rules, which prohibit live coverage of football in the UK between 14:45 and 17:15 on Saturdays by broadcasting Barcelona’s La Liga fixture against Athletic Bilbao.

This period on a Saturday afternoon is commonly referred to as the football “blackout” as the UK does not broadcast any matches during this period. It is at this time that football fans will instead turn to Jeff Stelling and Co. for their fix of football updates.

Eleven Sports broadcast the La Liga fixture in the UK despite a 15:15 BST kick off. Eleven Sports then streamed Getafe versus Levante the following weekend at the same time. Andrea Radrizzani, its founder, has recently said that the broadcaster will continue to broadcast live La Liga matches during the Saturday blackout window.

Article 48 of the UEFA Statutes grants UEFA and the Member Associations the exclusive rights to broadcast any matches within their jurisdiction. The regulationsgoverning the implementation of Article 48 provide further detail:

  • Article 3(1) refers to “transmission-free periods” where Member Associations may decide on a two and a half hour period on a Saturday or Sunday during which any transmission of football is prohibited within the territory of the Member Association.
  • Article 3(3) requires that the chosen hours of a Member Association should correspond to the “main domestic fixture schedule”, which is defined as corresponding to the time when the majority (50% or more) of the weekly football matches in the top or top two domestic leagues are played.

This corresponds to the set of fixtures played at 15:00 on a Saturday in the UK.

The ethos behind this is described in Article 2(1), which provides that the regulations are designed to ensure that spectators are not deterred from attending local football matches or, indeed, participating in amateur or youth matches themselves. The transmission of Premier League, or Championship, fixtures may discourage football fans from watching their local club or playing the sport at a recreational and competitive level. The purpose of the broadcasting blackout is clear. This supports attendance not only for well-established clubs but also encourages fans to visit lower league local clubs; clubs that may rely on ticket revenue as an income stream.

Only three Member Associations of UEFA implement this transmission free period: England, Scotland and Montenegro. Article 3(1) of the regulations above asserts an option for Member Associations to implement this right, with UEFA adopting language that they “may” decide to implement it. Many Member Associations do not exercise this right.

Eleven Sports holds the rights to broadcast Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga matches in the UK. In August, Eleven Sports considered live streaming Serie A fixtures during the transmission-free period. This decision was intended to exert pressure on the English FA to amend its stance on the blackout rules. In the end. Eleven Sports did not show the fixture and released a statement, explaining that it would:

continue to challenge [the FA enforced regulation] with the best interests of our customers at heart”.

Eleven Sports argued that the rules are outdated, as the new landscape of smartphones and the growth in (and ease of) access to illegal streaming sites have circumvented the blackout rules. English football fans can easily watch football during the transmission-free period regardless of the FA’s rules.

Other agree that there is no good reason for the rule to remain.  When the European Court of Justice delivered its judgment in the joined cases of FA Premier League v QC Leisure and Others (C-403/08) and Karen Murphy v Media Protection Services (C-429/08) regarding the power of the Premier League to licence its broadcasting rights on an exclusive territorial basis, Advocate General Kokott noted in her Opinion that:

“It is, in fact, doubtful whether closed periods are capable of encouraging attendance at matches and participation in matches.  Both activities have a completely different quality to the following of a live transmission on television.  It has not been adequately shown to the Court that the closed periods actually encourage attendance at and participation in matches.  Indeed, there is evidence to refute this claim: for example, in an investigation of the closed periods under competition law the Commission found that only 10 of 22 associations had actually adopted a closed period.  No closed periods were adopted in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, or in Northern Ireland, that is to say, within the sphere of English football.  Furthermore, in Germany today all Bundesliga matches are evidently transmitted live without attendance at matches in the top two leagues suffering as a result.”

Whilst Eleven Sports is flouting the FA rules by streaming live La Liga matches, it is yet to broadcast Serie A matches during the blackout window. However, Radrizzani has indicated that Serie A matches may also be broadcast.

When asked how long the controversial policy will endure, Radrizzani replied:

until we can have an amicable and friendly conversation with the right parties about this. They are penalising us because there are betting websites showing the games live, while we legitimately paid the rights fee and cannot show it.”

The chief communications officer at La Liga has expressed his support for Eleven Sports too stating: “this type of blackout doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s from a different age. We are aware of what Eleven Sports are doing and generally support them”.

The FA is reportedly “looking into it”.

Will this be a catalyst for change to the UK broadcasting rules on football, or will the FA remain steadfast in its traditional position?

© Copyright 2018 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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