Premier League TV rights sale under investigation

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2014 11:39 AM

LONDON (AP) — English Premier League fans at home could have access to as many matches live on television as audiences abroad after an investigation was launched by Britain's broadcasting watchdog on Tuesday.

Most games kick off at 3 p.m. on Saturdays but are available only to international rights holders so fans aren't discouraged from going to stadiums. With four professional leagues in England, featuring 92 clubs, watchdog Ofcom said it will consult with fans before ordering any overhaul of television rights.

The investigation was launched after a complaint from Virgin Media, which is owned by U.S. cable TV operator Liberty Global. Virgin Media said that, with only 41 percent of matches shown live in Britain, customers end up paying more for their subscriptions because there is less competition.

The domestic rights are held by Sky, whose largest shareholder is Rupert Murdoch, and BT Sport. Their three-year deals, which cost a combined 3.018 billion pounds ($4.7 billion), end after the 2015-16 season.

"Ofcom understands that the scheduling of football games is important to many football fans, in particular attending 3 p.m. kickoffs on Saturdays," the regulator said in a statement. "The investigation will take this into account and Ofcom plans to approach the Football Supporters' Federation and certain other supporters' groups to understand their views."

FSF chief executive Kevin Miles said it would seek to protect the current blackout window.

"We are very keen to defend the 3 p.m. Saturday kickoffs as far as possible," Miles told The Associated Press. "We want to stress the importance of match-going fans in generating the atmosphere the television companies want to buy and Premier League wants to sell.

"It doesn't automatically follow that more competition among TV companies will benefit fans."

The Ofcom investigation could delay the start of the auction for the next three-year rights packages, although the Premier League insists its process is compatible with British and European competition law.

Away from Britain, only Austria and Montenegro in Europe have blackout windows when no live football can be shown, UEFA says on its website.

"Fans in the U.K. pay the highest prices in Europe to watch the least amount of football on TV," Virgin Media chief executive Tom Mockridge said in a statement. "Now is the right time to look again at the way live rights are sold to make football even more accessible."

The blackout in Britain prevents games from abroad from being shown between 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. on Saturdays, which led to the first 15 minutes of the Real Madrid-Barcelona match last month also being blocked for viewers.

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris