Belfast Telegraph

FL chief against TV rights change

Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey believes any attempt to screen live Premier League matches on Saturday afternoons could be "catastrophic" for the English game.

Harvey was speaking after it was revealed cable giant Virgin Media has lodged a formal complaint with the broadcast regulator Ofcom about TV rights sales.

Virgin Media wants Ofcom to open a formal investigation into the way the Premier League sells its broadcast rights.

The complaint claims fans are forced to pay over the odds to watch games on television, that consumers do not benefit from competition between channel providers in terms of the cost, and that the restriction on the number of matches being shown live limits consumer choice.

Harvey, whose comments have been echoed by the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), said: "Football's long-standing blocked hours on Saturday afternoons are there to protect attendances at all levels of the domestic game and their continued existence has to be in football's wider interests.

"Ticket revenue remains the biggest single source of income for Football League clubs and is worth around £200m per season to our clubs. Therefore, any move to allow televised matches to compete with games played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon could potentially be catastrophic for the game in this country."

Virgin Media predicts that there will be a further 60 per cent rise in the cost of the rights in the next auction.

FSF chairman Malcolm Clarke backed lower costs for watching matches on TV - but not at the expense of losing the closed window between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturday afternoons.

Clarke said: "We have always supported the closed window. If you have all Saturday afternoon games on TV you would have the destruction of the traditional English game.

"It would clash with Football League games and amateur games and we would not support that.

"Anything that keeps the cost down for fans is good, and we would prefer Premier League clubs have ticket prices to encourage people to go to the games and not watch it on TV, but for those who can't they shouldn't be paying through the nose."

Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to open an investigation under the Competition Act 1998 claiming that "significant consumer harm resulting from escalating rights costs" can be addressed by making changes to the way in which live rights are sold.

The Premier League's current domestic live TV rights increased by 70 per cent to £3billion after Sky and BT Sport shared seven packages in the last auction for the 2013-16 rights.

The next Premier League tender is expected to go out in the new year with the next set of three-year deals announced before the end of the season.

Ofcom is expected make a decision on a review before the end of November, but even if it does announce an investigation it is likely to be a matter of years before an outcome, meaning the next TV deal would not be affected.

Virgin Media's complaint is understood to suggest that fans in the UK have to pay £51 monthly for access to all top-flight matches on TV, while it is £25 in Italy, £21 in Germany, £18 in Spain and £10 in France.

Virgin Media is not planning to bid for the Premier League rights but carries Sky Sports and BT Sport on its cable networks, so it passes on the costs of live Premier League football to its own customers.

Mike Fries, chief executive of Liberty Global which owns Virgin Media, said earlier this year the company had no intention to bid for live Premier League TV rights.

Brigitte Trafford, Virgin Media's chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement: "The rapidly rising cost of Premier League live broadcast rights means UK fans pay the highest prices in Europe to watch football on TV. Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to investigate how the rights are sold ahead of the next auction."

The Premier League said its sales process had always satisfied regulators in the past.

It said in a statement: "Live Premier League audio-visual rights have always been sold in a transparent and open process. Regulators have examined our rights packaging and sales process in considerable detail in the past and found both of them to be compliant with UK and European competition law.

"If Ofcom chooses to investigate this complaint, we will of course be happy to demonstrate to Ofcom that this is the case."

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