Ofcom has closed its two-year investigation of the Premier League’s TV rights auction – a move which complainant Virgin Media believes will lead to price hikes for football fans.
The media watchdog launched the investigation in 2014 after Virgin Media lodged a complaint arguing that the Premier League should make all 380 matches live on TV. Virgin Media maintains that by making just 41 per cent of matches available, the Premier League is keeping prices artificially high and restricting choice to consumers.
The investigation, carried out under the Competition Act 1998, considered whether the selling arrangements of the Premier League restricted or distorted competition.
In closing the investigation, Ofcom has taken into account the Premier League’s recent decision to increase the number of matches available for live broadcast in the UK, to a minimum of 190 per season from the start of the 2019/20 season. This will be an increase of at least 22 matches per season over the number sold for live broadcast in the Premier League’s auction in 2015.
The Premier League’s decision to increase matches available in its next auction for live TV rights builds upon commitments given to the European Commission in 2006.
The next auction will include a ‘no single buyer’ rule, which means that more than one broadcaster must be awarded rights. At least 42 matches per season will be reserved for a second buyer, of which a minimum of 30 will be available for broadcast at the weekend.
Ofcom also took into account the results of consumer research it carried out to understand the preferences of match-going fans and those watching on TV in relation to Premier League matches. Ofcom has today published the results of the consumer research undertaken as part of the investigation.
A fifth of fans said they wanted to see more matches televised live. A similar proportion said they were happy with the overall number of matches broadcast live, but wanted to see different matches shown.
Among match-going fans, a high proportion said that the day of the week and kick-off time was of high importance, with over two-thirds of this group identifying the Saturday 3pm kick off as their preferred time to attend.
Ofcom believes that a balance would need to be struck between the potential benefits of releasing more matches for live broadcast, and the potential disruption on match-going fans as a result of these games being rescheduled to be broadcast outside of the ‘closed period’. The closed period is between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday. The live broadcast of any football match is prohibited during the closed period, which is set by the Football Association.
Because of the range of views expressed in the consumer research, significant further work – including additional research among football fans – would be required to conclude this investigation, says Ofcom.
Given such considerations Ofcom has decided to close the investigation. “Ofcom’s resources could be used more effectively on other priorities to benefit consumers and competition,” it concludes.
Despite the investigation being closed, Virgin Media welcomed news that the Premier League was to make more matches available to be broadcast live on TV.
“Football fans will now be able to watch more live action on TV,” said Tom Mockridge, CEO of Virgin Media. “As the only TV provider to offer all the available games, we are pleased that after a two year campaign the Premier League has agreed to offer more TV games.”
Virgin Media’s #MoreBalls campaign began in September 2014 when the company made a formal complaint to Ofcom about the way the live rights are auctioned. Virgin Media argued that the way the Premier League sells live TV rights is against competition rules and against fans’ interests. In particular Virgin Media pointed to the spiralling costs of the TV rights and the fact that fans are unable to watch some live matches on TV.
In November 2014 Ofcom launched a formal investigation into the Premier League. In October 2015, Virgin Media-commissioned research showed that three quarters of fans want more live games available on TV.