Premier League insists there is no basis for Virgin Media to ask for TV rights to be delayed

Virgin Media approached Ofcom to delay the action

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The Independent Football

The Premier League has insisted there is no legal basis to halt its sale of domestic TV rights for the 2016-19 seasons after Virgin Media asked broadcast regulator Ofcom to delay the auction.

The sale of the rights is due to be completed in early February but Virgin Media wants the outcome delayed until Ofcom has finished its investigation into the complaint lodged by the media company last year.

Ofcom said it would make a decision within days - the regulator could itself have instituted measures to halt the auction two months ago but chose not to.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: "Virgin Media has today made an application for interim measures, which we must now review. We aim to reach a decision in a matter of days."

The Premier League issued invitations to tender (ITT) in December for the broadcast rights for three seasons starting in August 2016 with 168 live matches available in total - 14 more than are currently shown, which means that 44 per cent of all Premier League games will be available live.

Virgin Media made the application to Ofcom on Thursday morning. Brigitte Trafford, Virgin Media's chief corporate affairs officer, said: "The Premier League has pushed ahead with its early sale of TV rights despite Ofcom's investigation.

"With 18 months until those deals begin, there is plenty of time for Ofcom to pause the auction process while it completes its inquiries. Failure to do so will leave fans, who already pay the most to see the least amount of football in Europe, facing yet another big rise in the cost of watching live football on TV."

The Premier League hit back saying Virgin Media's "self-serving" action should not affect the TV rights sale.

A Premier League statement said: "The Premier League made Ofcom aware almost two months ago that its next UK live broadcast rights auction process would be taking place in February 2015.

"A self-serving media release from Virgin Media should have no bearing on the sale of the Premier League's rights.

"Given the global interest in our rights it is essential that we give successful bidders ample time to put plans in place to utilise fully the rights they acquire.

"Moreover, the League's sales process will be conducted fully in compliance with competition law and there is no legal basis whatsoever for any interference with the sales process or the legitimate operation of the market."

The auction is expected to herald another bumper pay-day for top-flight clubs - even higher than than the current £3.018billion deal.

There will be seven packages available, as under the current system, but the Monday night package will include up to 10 games to be played on Friday night.

The announcement fired the starting gun on the contest to secure the live rights, with current rights holders Sky and BT Sport plus the Discovery channel all expected to bid.

League chiefs took the decision not to delay the ITT despite the Ofcom investigation because that could take up to two years. Increasing the number of games made available live however could be seen as a move towards trying to satisfy Ofcom.

The Premier League has insisted however that the Saturday 3pm kick-off time remains sacrosanct, and that matches played at that time will not be shown live.

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IN BRIEF

Q: What is the issue with the Premier League and Virgin Media?

A: Virgin Media has been a thorn in the side of the Premier League for several months now, having lodged a complaint with Ofcom over how the league sells its domestic TV rights. It has now asked Ofcom to halt the Premier League's auction of TV rights next month.

Q: What is the basis of Virgin Media's complaint?

A: It claims TV viewers in Britain are being charged too much to watch top-flight football compared to those in the rest of the EU. It also wants viewers to be able to watch all matches live on TV.

Q: Does Ofcom have the power to halt the TV rights auction?

A: As the broadcast regulator it does have the power but perhaps significantly could itself have instituted measures to halt the auction two months ago but chose not to.

Q: What is likely to happen now?

A: The most likely scenario is that Ofcom will allow the auction to proceed.

Q: How much is the auction likely to be worth to the Premier League and who is in the running?

A: The 2013-16 domestic rights were sold for an astonishing £3.018billion to Sky and BT Sport and the next three-year rights deals are expected to bring in even more - especially with the Discovery channel also expected to bid and possibly Qatar-based beIN Sport too. There will also be live Friday night matches available for the first time.

PA

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