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Sport seeks waiver from EU curbs

Delegation in Brussels to fight anti-trust regulations
LEADERS of some of Europe's most influential sporting organisations will ask the European Commission tomorrow to exclude sport from the European Union's commercial regulations.

A delegation that includes Max Mosley of motor racing's governing body, the FIA; Primo Nebiolo of the International Amateur Athletics Federation and Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, will visit Brussels.

They will ask EU Culture Commissioner, Marcelino Oreja, for sport to be given special status, exempt from EU rules governing commercial competition and state aid in the same way as arts and culture. Mr Oreja is currently drawing up a policy document on the regulation of sport.

The move by European sport's governing bodies is likely to be seen in Brussels as an attempt to rally support against attempts by the EU's Competition Commissioner, Karel Van Miert, to curb world sport's self-regulation.

As big business and sport become increasingly interlinked, Mr Van Miert believes the European Commission has a duty to step in to see fair play.

It is unclear, however, if Gerhard Aigner, general secretary of the European football's ruling body, Uefa, will attend Monday's meeting with Mr Oreja. When the sport's organisations first got together in Lausanne, Switzerland, last March, Uefa was behind them. At that time, it was still reeling from the impact of the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling backing Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, who claimed his club's transfer fee demands were a restriction of trade.

However, the threat of a breakaway European Super League - run by Media Partners, the Italian-based marketing group - has radically changed the picture. Uefa last week asked the European Commission to act as referee in its dispute with Media Partners, which has promised to notify Mr Van Miert of its intentions so that the Commission can check that contracts between clubs and organisers do not violate competition law.

"The Bosman case is the past and we are working for the future." said an Aigner aide.

Relations between the FIA and Brussels are still strained, though. The FIA is currently suing the European Commission after it made public a "confidential" letter from the FIA.

EU insiders, however, say the court action would allow the FIA, which runs Formula One, to claim bias in the event of a negative outcome of an EU anti-trust inquiry into the way the organisation is run. The FIA has rejected charges that Formula One amounts to an illegal monopoly.

The Commission is currently negotiating with Bernie Ecclestone, the multi-millionaire who runs Formula One, in an attempt to modify the content of Formula One's broadcasting contracts which Brussels suspects restricts competition in the sport.

Intervention by the European Commission would threaten Mr Ecclestone's planned flotation of his company Formula One Holdings.

The Commission is worried in particular about broadcasting agreements that give certain television companies a 33 per cent discount from the fees each pays if they do not show any other car races. This, officials say, could discriminate against competitors.

In an interview last week, Mr Van Miert said he would fight to ensure that soccer and other sports remained accessible to the average fan. "We want to make sure that matches will be available so you don't have to pay," he said.