EU legal framework

IRIS Plus 2016-2: Audiovisual sports rights – between exclusivity and right to information

Author: Francisco Javier Cabrera Blázquez, Maja Cappello, Gilles Fontaine, Sophie Valais, European Audiovisual Observatory

Published: 26/10/2016

Sport and media are two closely connected areas. Most people wishing to watch a game are not always in the position of attending it physically and therefore need a different way of participating in the live experience. Media can be of help in this regard: it can ensure access to first-hand information about the event through the news, but also full direct coverage through live broadcasts.

In order to do so, media providers need to acquire transmission rights, which are, in the case of premium sport events, particularly valuable. This means that they tend to prefer being the exclusive rightsholders of events, so as to profit from advertising revenues and fees from their subscribers. Exclusive rightsholders are not necessarily pay-TV operators, as this is a choice that depends entirely of the business model of the concerned broadcaster, but in such cases the viewing experience is limited solely to subscribers. A similar limiting effect occurs in the case of a broadcaster with limited territorial coverage.

In order to ensure a proper balancing of different interests, including the right to information for the viewers and the right of property for the broadcasters, specific rules have been put in place.

The European Audiovisual Observatory has already explored this topic three times in the last twelve years, namely:

  • IRIS Plus on “Sport as reflected in European media law”, in 2004;
  • IRIS Plus on “Major events and reporting rights”, in 2006;
  • IRIS Plus on “Exclusive rights and short reporting”, in 2012.

The increasing relevance of audiovisual sports rights, especially given this summer’s European football championship and Summer Olympics, has prompted us to nonetheless carry out a comprehensive exploration of the topic.

The very concrete nature of this topic can be illustrated by an example. Consider a Spaniard who is a Real Madrid fan but lives in France. To watch the matches of his/her favourite team, this football fan would have to pay for access to a particular pay-TV channel, which holds exclusive rights for the Spanish Liga in France. To watch Champions League matches, it would be necessary to subscribe to yet another pay-TV channel. The relevant legal questions would be: “Why is there a need to pay?”; “How exclusive can broadcasting rights can be?”; and “Why are there no other options?”.

Should our Real Madrid fan not wish to pay money for watching football matches, while still wanting to be informed about the outcome of these matches, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) provides a set of rules allowing broadcasters to have access to events of high interest to the public which are otherwise transmitted on an exclusive basis by another broadcaster. More precisely, free-to-air broadcasters are allowed to freely choose short extracts from the other broadcasters’ signals, which will allow them to inform their viewers about the most relevant aspects of the events concerned.

But should our Spanish football fan have wanted to follow Euro 2016 this summer in France, in particular if Spain reached the finals (which we know was not the case…) the question remains whether it would be fair that people with little money would be unable to see what would be a major event for the whole country. Again, for this special situation there are rules in the AVMSD: member states can compile a list of designated events, both national or non-national, which they consider to be of major importance for society, and for which free-to-air coverage must be ensured for access by a substantial part of the public.

All the above legal issues are discussed in this IRIS Plus. The publication starts from an economic perspective and explains how audiovisual rights are negotiated, which types of rights they cover, and what their legal nature is. These issues are then established within a wider regulatory context, exploring international and European obligations before turning to national frameworks.

This publication also explores European case law and self-regulation, in consideration of the very special nature of sports organisations, before looking into considerations of the future.