The European Commission ruling last week that Eurosport is operating illegally may put the satellite sports channel off the air permanently.

The EC says the venture between Sky Television, News Intl. and the Eurosport consortium (a group of 17 broadcaster members of the European Broadcasting Union), contravenes Article 85 of the Treaty of Rome, which bans agreements between companies or associations that limit or distort free competition.

The EC said Eurosport “brought together two potential competitors for sports programs, so they cooperated instead of competing, while at the same time denying access to programs for other satellite or cable services.” The EBU or its members control the largest part of sports programs produced in Europe.

The decision followed a complaint filed in December 1987 by Screensport, a competitive satellite sports channel now part of the European Sports Network of which W.H. Smith Television holds 75% and ESPN the remainder. According to Francis Baron, the net’s chief exec, the decision “will enable Screensport to compete in the marketplace for the first time on a fair basis.”

Question now is whether Eurosport will survive. Murdoch last year merged Sky TV with BSB, acquiring yet the Sports Channel. Thought to be more appealing to British audiences than the pan-European Eurosport, the Sports Channel is to become one of BSkyB’s five channels when new schedules are introduced later in the year.

Murdoch already has indicated that he wants to sell his stake in Eurosport, and the company said last week that negotiations had taken place with several parties. A possible buyer was thought to be Jerome Seydoux’s Chargeurs group, but a spokesman denied any interest.

Eurosport can appeal the ruling; if it ignores the EC, it could face heavy fines.

Problem arose because Eurosport has exclusive access to sports events covered by 17 EBU broadcasters. These include the World Cup and other big sport events in Europe. Screensport is left with minor ones.

Baron says his company will now be free to bid for coverage of major sports events.

Eurosport is delivered by two different satellites to more than 22 million households. Some analysts say Eurosport cannot compete without its exclusive relationship with the EBU.

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