The proposed amendment to European Union broadcasting legislation aims to protect the most popular events from pay-per-view or subscription broadcasting and is expected to be on the statute books by the summer, if EU ministers give their approval.
"What we are doing is making sure that citizens are not deprived of seeing certain sporting events because of pay or coded television," Marcelino Oreja, the EU commissioner for broadcasting policy who drafted the measure, said yesterday.
The move was welcomed by the Labour MEP, Carol Tongue, who, as the socialist spokesman in the European Parliament, has been urging the Commisison to come to the aid of armchair fans. "To its credit, the Commission has responded swiftly and recognised that this is a matter of paramount importance to a lot of people across Europe," she said.
The Commission's plan falls short of European Parliament demands for a uniform list of restricted events that would apply across the EU. Instead, each of the 15 national governments would nominate those events in their own country that they want protected as "of major importance to society", and, provided Brussels approves, those events would be restricted within national borders.
Such an approach endorses the British government's policy that a list of leading UK events - the so-called crown jewels of British sport - should remain with terrestrial broadcasters. Listed events in Britain include the FA Cup final, home cricket Tests and the Grand National.
Brussels would then guarantee mutual recognition for member states' national lists while limiting EU action to the biggest international events. Obvious candidates for inclusion on a "European" list would be the summer and winter Olympics, the World Cup and the European football championship, Oreja said.
However there was also a suggestion that Oreja's guidelines might affect Sky's exclusive right to show Premiership football. Events may take place at "regular" intervals but not, according to the proposal, "with a high degree of frequency". That would appear to exclude Premiership games, but Oreja also suggested that some matches might be deemed of such public interest that they would qualify.
"We are not going to include all the matches in a football league but we've got to look at each match one by one," he said. He conceded that the practical implementation of the scheme remained something of a "grey area". Oreja insisted he was not trying to "do away with exclusive rights", merely to place certain limits on them.
The Spanish Commissioner offered little comfort to sports federations and football clubs which can at the moment negotiate highly lucrative television deals on live games and which might be hit by the change in the law. They could potentially recoup lost income through increased advertising, he suggested.
If it becomes law, the EU directive will affect companies like Kirch Group of Germany, which last year won the rights to the World Cup finals in 2002 and 2006 by outbidding the European Broadcasting Union with an offer of $2.24bn (pounds 1.38bn). Kirch's contract provides for free transmission, but there is concern that television rights for sporting events of similar magnitude could end up in the hands of Kirch or Sky.
The International Olympic Committee rejected a bid of $2bn (pounds 1.23bn) from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for the summer and winter games up to 2008, accepting instead an offer of $1.4bn (pounds 864m) from the EBU.
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