EU court backs free-to-air TV principle for World Cup

Europe’s top court said Thursday countries can insist that the World Cup and Euro football tournaments be available to all on free-to-view TV channels, rather than be sold exclusively to stations charging subscriptions.

FIFA and UEFA, which organise and own the commercial rights to the tournaments, were appealing against earlier rulings in favour of Britain and Belgium, who argued the tournaments were of national interest with a national audience and so should not be monopolised by niche broadcasters who want in on the action.

In a nuanced ruling, the European Court of Justice however did sympathise with FIFA and UEFA, saying previous judgements were at fault in not drawing a distinction between big-ticket, mass audience events such as next year’s World Cup final in Brazil, and lesser group-stage games involving smaller countries.

Accordingly, in the future, the two governing bodies would be able to maximise their commercial returns by niche-selling bundles of matches to more lucrative pay-to-view broadcasters, rather than have the entire tournament blocked from this process.

These tournaments “must be regarded as events which are, in principle, divisible into different matches or stages, not all of which are necessarily capable of being characterised as an event of major importance,” the court said in its ruling.

As a consequence, and in a change from the earlier rulings, countries must now give detailed reasons to the European Commission — guardian of EU business competition interests — “justifying why they consider that the final stage of the World Cup or the Euro constitutes, in its entirety, a single event of major importance for sociey in the states concerned.”

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