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Premier on a Euro TV kick

EC ends antitrust battle over tube rights

The European Commission has sanctioned a landmark deal with soccer’s English Premier League, ending the antitrust battle over the sale of live TV rights.

European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes will confirm this week a settlement the two sides reached in November.

The wrangling over the Premier League’s sale of lucrative 23-match packages, which showcase the U.K.’s finest soccer talent for the 2007-09 seasons, has continued since Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB won all the rights in December 2002.

BSkyB is now paying a little more than £1 billion ($1.75 billion) over three years to show all live Premier League games — a stranglehold anathema to the EC’s competition regulations.

Now live TV rights will be auctioned in six packages, with no one bidder allowed to buy more than five and rights split between at least two rival broadcasters.

Commission is expected to endorse the deal on Wednesday, which will allow the Premier League to launch the auction for the 2007-09 seasons. The EC must appoint an auction trustee before the sale can go ahead.

Likely to be invited to bid will be BSkyB, cabler NTL, sports channel Setanta as well as terrestrial broadcasters the BBC, ITV and Five, which have all been asked to indicate their interest before April.

There is still doubt that the deal will stop BSkyB from acquiring the vast majority of matches — a concern that undermined the deal struck last summer, when the EC threatened to charge the Premier League with violating EU competition rules.

The Premier League chose not to comment.