UK quad-play operator Virgin Media is seeking a suspension to the tendering process for live English Premier League football broadcast rights for three seasons starting in August 2016. The move follows its lodging of a complaint in December 2014 with regulator Ofcom over how the rights are sold, which it contends remains in breach of UK and EU competition law.
According to Virgin Media, Ofcom can impose such interim measures under the Competition Act 1998 to “prevent significant damage to a particular person or category of person” – in this case fans who want to watch live football on TV.
“This is set to be the earliest ever conclusion to a Premier League TV rights auction, and just weeks before Ofcom reaches its decision in March. If the auction continues unchecked, Ofcom’s ability to act will be prejudiced and it will likely be 2019 until the next opportunity to rein in the rampant inflation in prices for viewers,” it suggests.
According to Brigitte Trafford, Virgin Media’s chief corporate affairs officer, 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,” she argues.
The Premier League has described the action as “self-serving” with no legal basis whatsoever for any interference with the sales process or the legitimate operation of the market.
“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,” it said in a statement. “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,” it concluded.
Ofcom confirmed that Virgin Media had made an application for interim measures, which it now had to review. “We aim to reach a decision in a matter of days,” it said in a statement.
The Premier League issued invitations to tender (ITT) in December 2014 with 168 live matches available in total – 14 more than are currently shown, meaning that 44 per cent of all Premier League games will be available live.