The announcement that the Premier League and the EC Commission have settled their differences over the recent broadcasting deal with Sky marks a low and, quite possibly, final point in the EC Commission’s interventions into essentially national sporting matters.
The full details of the settlement are yet to emerge but a number of elements seem clear.
The first is that the eight matches that Sky is obliged to license can be matches that Sky chooses. The Commission will not be micromanaging which matches Sky has to make available. So long as they come from the (least valuable) “fourth package” that will be alright.
Secondly, if the terrestrials (or anyone else) don’t want to wreck their Saturday schedule for a meaningless mid-table encounter in April and don’t bid, Sky will retain its rights. The Commission can lead the horses to water, but cannot make them drink.
The chances are therefore very good that Sky will be able to say validly in its promotional material that it still has the cream of the market “exclusively”, and that the Premier League won’t lose much revenue which will in due course be swiftly drained from the agents and players (the so called “prune juice” effect).
Where the settlement puts the Commission after all the expectations that its intervention raised is another matter.
The Commission press release does say that a new system will come into force next time in 2006 whereby at least two broadcasters will share the spoils. One is entitled to be very sceptical about this. We have heard it all before from the Commission. 2006 is a long way off. Before then, regulatory power over what is after all a basically national agreement will revert to the OFT and (if the UK, Germany and France have their way) the Commission’s budget will be capped. It follows that consumers may have to find another (more reluctant) champion next time.
If the settlement does mark the end of the line, it cannot be said that the Commission goes out on a high or melodious note. The Commission’s much derided decision to fine FIFA a symbolic figure of 1,000 EU over the 1998 World Cup soccer ticketing fiasco shows that this poor outcome is not unprecedented. What is particularly unfortunate for the Commission, however, is that the settlement (which actually fairly reflects the weakness of its legal case) comes only a couple of weeks after the Euro-land bete noir Rupert Murdoch said that unless the Commission backed off a lot of clubs would go bust. Well, the Commission backed off but this decision will take some living down.