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European court ruling could threaten Premier League broadcasting revenue

The Premier League's long-term ability to attract huge sums in broadcast rights could be damaged by a ruling in the European Court of Justice. Yesterday an adviser to the court said that European Union law cannot prevent matches being shown in UK pubs via foreign broadcasters and if that is adopted by the Court this year it will radically alter the way in which sports rights are sold across the continent.

Later this year the Court will rule on a case brought by a Portsmouth publican who was fined for showing Premier League games via a Greek decoder. The ECJ usually acts on the advice of the advocate general and it is Juliane Kokott's opinion that rights cannot be held exclusively within European member states.

At present Sky and ESPN have exclusive rights to broadcast the Premier League – the current domestic contract is worth £1.78bn over three years – but the ECJ ruling would potentially undermine that, meaning the League could not guarantee that all-important exclusivity. "It could set off an earthquake in sports rights marketing," claimed Dr Peter Duvinage, a German legal expert. The danger for the Premier League is that it may result in a single pan-European rights holder, who then sub-licenses to each country or territory, and there are few broadcasters in a position to fill that role. That has obvious consequences for the price the rights fetch.

The League responded yesterday with a statement that accused the European Commission of trying to "force through legislative changes via the courts." The statement said: "Our initial view is that [Kokott's advice] is not compatible with the existing body of EU case law and would damage the interests of broadcasters and viewers of Premier League football across the EU. It would prevent rights holders across Europe from marketing their rights in a way which meets demand from broadcasters whose clear preference is to acquire, and pay for, exclusive rights within their own territory only. The ECJ is there to enforce the law, not change it."

The Premier League's TV rights are the most lucrative in the game, with an extra £1bn coming from global broadcasters on top of the domestic income. Most of that comes from a rapidly expanding Asian market, with Europe estimated to provide just a third of overseas income.