UK scores against FIFA over Free to Air World Cup football rights

The UK has secured a significant victory over both FIFA and UEFA over rights to transmit future World Cup and European football championships on Free to Air (FTA) television in the country.

FIFA and UEFA, the respective governing bodies of World and European football, had launched an appeal against a European ruling that all matches of future World Cup and European championships in the UK should be available free to air. The two bodies argued such a ruling reduced their ability to negotiate the best prices from sales of rights to pay-TV operators, which are clearly worth less if the same events can be watched FTA.

The European General Court had already ruled in 2011 that the U.K. could show all matches FTA since they were cited on a list of "protected" events deemed of national sporting interest that should be available to all. Other such events, which cannot be sold exclusively to pay-TV operators, include the Wimbledon tennis championships.

FIFA and UEFA appealed, but now the European Court of Justice, Europe's Supreme Court, has upheld that original decision. This means that the game is up for FIFA and UEFA for the foreseeable future. The decision will only come into effect for the 2016 European championships and 2018 World Cup in Russia, since the BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV have already secured full FTA rights between them for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The immediate commercial impact will be limited because the U.K. had already won agreement that all matches involving its domestic teams England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be available FTA, as well as opening games, along with the semifinal and final matches. As there is little interest in the UK in matches purely involving other countries, outside the final stages, rights for those matches have little commercial value. But U.K. broadcasters felt there was an important principle at stake and the ruling could have knock on consequences for other major events, as well as elsewhere in the world where different rules apply over rights.

The case was important in the context of the huge sums football rights can attract. FIFA earned at least $2 billion in TV and media rights deals for the South Africa 2010 World Cup, while in the U.K., rights for the English Premier League for the three seasons 2013/2014 to 2015/2016, went for £3 billion ($4.6 billion) when they were auctioned in 2012.