EU rips rights deal

BSkyB faces heat over Premier League pact

BRUSSELS — Elation at satcaster BSkyB over reaching the 7 million subscriber mark was dampened Wednesday when European Union antitrust chief Mario Monti launched an attack on its lucrative soccer TV rights deal with the English Premier League.

August’s $1.7 billion deal gave BSkyB rights to screen 138 soccer matches from 2004 to 2007.

The European Commission believes that the four packages of rights were structured so that only BSkyB could afford it, edging out rivals.

Describing the deal as bad for competition in the broadcasting market and consumers, Monti told the league that his office was preparing a statement of objections.

The English Premier League separated the rights into four packages after the EU criticized it for bundling rights to all 20 of its clubs. Ultimately, though, all four packages were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s media giant.

“The circumstances and results of the bidding process, and in particular the elimination of competition, raise serious concerns,” Monti said. He added that the results of the bidding suggest BSkyB will have an even greater monopoly of live TV rights than it did in previous years.

Euro style

Monti suggested that the league could follow the example of European soccer league UEFA. Previously, it sold rights to only one broadcaster in each Euro country. Under a new accord, small packages, including Internet and mobile-phone rights, are sold to a range of broadcasters across the Continent.

“The commission has proved with the UEFA Champions League decision that joint selling arrangements can be compatible with competition rules,” he said.

“Monti has suffered a few setbacks recently and with BSkyB he sees a real chance to draw blood,” said one Brussels lawyer who has followed the deal. “He’s not going to let go of this one easily.”

The league will have two months to respond to the EC’s statement. Monti has the power to block the deal, which would begin in fall 2004, and to levy a fine on the league if it was decided that it failed to give advance notice of its agreement.

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