Cheaper (and more) top flight footie coming to your TV?
Premier League football is a big deal. Unfortunately the scrabble to get to show the matches on UK television is also a Big Deal, with the latest rights sold to both BSkyB and BT Sport for a record £5.5bn over three years. Now, a challenge by Virgin Media on consumer grounds could see a shake up of broadcast footie, with even the sacred Saturday afternoon spot filled with the glorious game.
Live football has been banned from live TV since the 1950s to protect attendance at lower league games- after all, who’d want to watch jumpers-for-goalposts on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon if there was something better to do instead?
However, Virgin has challenged Ofcom to investigate the fact that a lower proportion of matches (41%) are shown on television in England than in other major European markets and that as a result consumers paid higher prices.
But don't be fooled. This is not Virgin trying to make sour grapes into a fine wine at all. It’s not that they just want a piece of the football screening action without shelling out several billion at all. It’s a consumer issue. Obvs.
Virgin is arguing that by effectively limiting the supply of matches, the Premier League has inflated the price that broadcasters have to pay, which means that cost is then passed on to consumers. The Premier League disagree, claiming that its (only recently implemented) approach of dividing the live matches on offer into packages and ensuring that they are sold to at least two broadcasters is consistent with competition law.
Ofcom has now launched an official investigation into the points raised by Virgin, with particular focus on whether there are grounds for an objection under the Competition Act. Ofcom said it would consult supporters’ groups as well as consumers, media companies and the football authorities over the case. However, the Premier League are likely to argue that they simply can’t offer more matches if the Saturday afternoon blackout is maintained, as there wouldn’t be the time or resources to meet the demand.
Tom Mockridge, the Virgin Media chief executive complained: "The fact remains that fans in the UK pay the highest prices in Europe to watch the least amount of football on TV. Now is the right time to look again at the way live rights are sold to make football even more accessible."
"We look forward to working constructively with the Premier League, the wider industry and Ofcom to ensure a better deal for football fans."
He neglects to mention that he was formerly a senior sort at News International and sat on Sky’s board, but while this is really more of a fight over football matches by the broadcasters, rather than a genuine consumer issue as Virgin would have us believe, if it results in more matches for consumers/fans at a lower cost, who are we to complain? We’ll all just stand round in a circle chanting “fight, fight…”
Unfortunately, however, any intervention by Ofcom is unlikely to have any effect on the tender documents for its next round of broadcasting contracts, covering the three seasons from 2016-17, which are due to go out early next year. Still. 2020 might be a good year for watching football…