Foreign challengers

Pubs are asserting their right to show matches on foreign channels and games are being fed online. Dave Lee looks at how our viewing habits are threatening Sky’s stranglehold

Broadcasters, football clubs and the Premier League have stepped up their pursuit of pubs using foreign subscriptions to show live games – and the battle is going all the way to the European Court of Justice.

Last month, BSkyB spent a staggering £1.62 billion to secure the rights to show Premier League football until 2013. That translates to 115 Premier League games a season, compared to Setanta who – after only winning one of the six packages – get a rather less impressive 23. So, unless you’re partial to a bit of Paul Parker, a Setanta subscription won’t be quite as attractive as it is now.

Yet, the Irish broadcaster may be counting themselves lucky if Karen Murphy gets her way. The Portsmouth publican has been repeatedly taken to court over her refusal to stop showing Premier League football on foreign channels in her pub, the Red, White and Blue. After an appeal, the case has been referred to the European Court of Justice. Her defence: stopping foreign channel subscriptions is against European trade laws.

The Murphy case is the headline-grabber in an ongoing campaign from the Premier League to crack down on rogue pubs using foreign channels to broadcast live games. In the past, landlords have been prosecuted for using the cheaper domestic licence to screen games. More recently, broadcasters have become worried about the emerging threat of the live streaming of games on websites.

Thanks to services such as BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4oD, web television has arrived into the mainstream. While it’s unlikely sitting around a computer watching a small, slightly grainy window from a foreign station will replace an afternoon around the TV, as broadband speeds increase, broadcasters are making sure they’re not going to get caught off-guard. German TV company Premiere will soon offer pay-per-view Bundesliga games live on the internet – even to those without a TV subscription. Paying a fee for a high-speed, high-quality legal alternative is a model that Apple’s iTunes has shown to work. And, from the football fan’s point of view, paying only for the games with your side in may be a far better deal than an all-season subscription. Sky have no plans (at least not publicly) to follow Premiere’s lead. Instead, they appear to be concentrating on stamping down on internet service providers who allow their users to watch illegal feeds. The broadcaster is pushing the government to appoint a tsar tasked with protecting intellectual property across the UK. This follows the Gower report, which established that intellectual property was crucial “to the success of the UK in the global knowledge economy”.

In the meantime, the Karen Murphy case will have a brutal knock-on effect no matter which side the ruling falls on. The value of Sky’s asset could take a serious blow, landlords may be able to show live Premier League football for somewhere in the region of £1,500 a year compared to Sky’s subscription rates which, depending on the premises, can amount to £900 a month. However, if Media Protection Services – the group acting on behalf of BSkyB – come away victorious, pub landlords up and down the country could see themselves faced with hefty fines and a licence-threatening criminal record.

Football clubs are also now getting involved. In the north-east, Sunderland are working with the Premier League to crack down on local pubs in providing games that, they say, are keeping some regular fans away. In addition to this, the Premier League is also putting pressure on the foreign broadcasters themselves to cut the service. In January, pub trade newspaper the Morning Advertiser reported that 3pm games shown in pubs were on the decline. However, these games are still shown on France’s Canal Plus, along with a broadcast team that includes everyone’s favourite pundit, Ron Atkinson.

Landlords argue the Sky “monopoly” is killing their businesses. But allowing pubs to broadcast foreign channels could potentially dent British football at every level. Sky’s investment value would plummet, and if fans opt for pub rather than club, they’ll be directly hitting the pockets of the teams they support.

From WSC 266 April 2009