EC probes sales

Watchdog watching English soccer b'casting rights

BRUSSELS — The European Commission confirmed Monday that it is investigating how the top English Premier League sells lucrative broadcasting rights for soccer matches.

If in breach of European Union competition rules, the Premier League could be forced to open up the system.

Details emerging Monday revealed that the probe began last August, when EU officials from head antitrust honcho Mario Monti’s division demanded inside information from the Premier League on how it allocated television rights for top soccer matches and access to the contracts for these deals. The Premier League had denied earlier rumors of EU investigations.

The news comes midway through a probe of pan-European soccer body UEFA, which was warned earlier this year that it should open its rights selling process to more broadcasters; org currently sells block rights to a single broadcaster in each country.

Parallel cases

Although industry insiders say the U.K. investigation is not likely to affect the outcome of the UEFA case, there are similarities between the two. Both UEFA and the English Premier League sell collective broadcast rights, rather than the rights to individual clubs’ matches; the difference is that the Premier League is a much more powerful product.

Britain’s top soccer league expects to earn £1.6 billion ($2.33 billion) from the sale of its broadcast rights this year, with $1.6 billion of that coming directly from the live transmission rights won by Rupert Murdoch’s satcaster BSkyB.

The dispute is likely to be bitter. “The Premier League will no doubt argue that its collective selling practices should be allowed because of the public interest benefit of the existing process,” Howard Cartlidge, head of media law firm Olswang’s competition group, told Daily Variety.

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