Eleven Sports reverses decision over football TV “blackout”

Posted in Antitrust and competition Football

Author: Tom Maturi

UEFA regulations currently allow member associations to implement a “transmission free period”, often referred to as the “blackout”, at the time when the majority of the weekly football matches in the top (or top two) domestic leagues in that country are played. Global sports provider Eleven Sports recently contravened this rule by broadcasting a La Liga fixture in the UK during the UK’s “transmission free period”. 

In this period, which is on Saturdays between 14:45 and 17:15 in the UK, no football, including football from other UEFA countries, is allowed to be broadcast. The rationale behind this is to encourage fans to attend local football matches, especially in the lower leagues where clubs may be more reliant on ticket revenues as an income stream.  At present, the only countries that enforce this optional UEFA regulation are England, Scotland and Montenegro. 

Previously, Eleven Sports had abided by the blackout, despite publicly challenging it. Earlier this season, it broadcast the Rome derby, which started at 14:00 UK time, “as live” at 17:15 and it was also forced not to broadcast the first fifteen minutes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus debut in the UK.  However, on Saturday 29 September, Barcelona’s La Liga fixture against Athletic Bilbao was shown live in the UK despite kicking off at 15:15 UK time and, the following week, it broadcast another La Liga fixture in the UK during the blackout. 

The English FA took the matter to UEFA, although, at the time of writing, no official complaint has been submitted. In any event, as Eleven Sports is not a football association, UEFA would have no jurisdiction to take any action against it.  Instead, UEFA would be forced to impose penalties against the Spanish FA, who would likely be reluctant to terminate its lucrative contract with Eleven Sports, not least as it did not suffer any damage or loss as a result of the livestreaming of the games.  Indeed, La Liga’s chief communications officer has offered his public support to Eleven Sports, stating that the blackout is “from a different age”[1].

More recently, however, Eleven Sports reversed its decision, stating that “for the time being” it would “no longer show matches during the Saturday afternoon blackout period”. Its statement went on to suggest that the blackout is one of the biggest generators of piracy in the UK and that it leaves the market “in the hands of criminals”[2].

The future of the blackout remains uncertain. To some extent, it appears almost inevitable that the blackout will cease to exist at some stage.  As football becomes an increasingly globalised sport, it seems illogical that fans in North America or Asia can watch more Premier League games than fans in England.  Additionally, as broadcasting rights continue to generate extraordinary sums of money for the Premier League, it could be argued that there is a demand for games within the blackout period to be broadcast as well, whilst it is arguably more of a burden for match going fans that Premier League games are increasingly being played outside of the blackout period.  From next season, for example, some 47.4 per cent of Premier League matches will kick off outside the blackout period to ensure that they can be broadcast live, with 180 games being sold in packages to Sky, BT and Amazon.

Similarly, earlier this season, though not technically contravening the blackout, League One and League Two matches were broadcast during the blackout period in the UK on a subscription service called “iFollow”. Due to a recent clarification of the UEFA regulation, League One and League Two matches are now allowed to be broadcast within the blackout period during international breaks only. 

Last year, however, over 70 per cent of fans who completed a survey created by the Football Supporters’ Federation supported the blackout. The federation also released a statement earlier this year stating that it was “disappointing to see the 3pm blackout undermined by iFollow”[3].

In the event that Eleven Sports contravenes the blackout again in the future and UEFA take action, it will be interesting to see whether the Spanish FA decides to prioritise the enforcement of the blackout or instead opts to support the stance taken by Eleven Sports. Equally, Eleven Sports, and indeed other broadcasters, may one day wish to formally challenge the blackout on the grounds that it is anti-competitive and, as it is only currently implemented in one EU member state, could potentially be unenforceable. 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/eleven-sports-premier-league-tv-stream-online-rules-la-liga-deal-fa-a8588656.html

[2] http://aroundtherings.com/site/A__74843/Title__Statement-from-Eleven-Sports-on--Football-Blackout-in-UK/292/Articles

[3] http://www.fsf.org.uk/latest-news/view/FSF-statement-on-EFL-streaming-of-saturday-3pm-kick-offs

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