Eleven Sports form part of the new cohort of digital-only broadcasters who are disrupting the dominance of live sports by traditional linear TV. Along with organisations such as DAZN, Eleven Sports has captured the headlines through acquiring exclusive rights to valuable products in the UK such as Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga fixtures, these previously being held by BT Sport and Sky Sports respectively.
As well as acquiring such rights, Eleven Sports has also been in the headlines for its flouting of the Saturday blackout rule. This rule, permitted by UEFA regulations, dates back to the 1960s, when Burnley F.C chairman Bob Lord managed to convince other football league chairmen that to televise matches on Saturday afternoons would negatively affect match day attendances. Consequently, the FA, Premier League and English Football League do not permit their matches to be shown live on television between the hours of 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday.
Crucially, the blackout rule also applies to foreign football shown on television in the United Kingdom. Over the course of two consecutive Saturdays, Eleven Sports flouted this rule through showing Italian and Spanish matches during the blackout period; its argument being that the rule does not cater for the modern football fan who relies on television for their consumption of the game. In its view, the game has moved on since its reliance on match day attendances for revenue, with the fact that the blackout rule is only upheld in England, Scotland and Montenegro evidence of it being outdated.
However, in a statement released this week, Eleven Sports announced that it is to stop showing European matches in the UK during the blackout period but that it is “considering all legal and regulatory options, including the referral of the case to the appropriate authorities.”
The appropriate authorities
Interestingly, UEFA cannot enforce the rule against Eleven Sports, but only against either La Liga and/or Serie A for allowing the game to be broadcast in the blackout period. If the rule continues to be enforced, it would appear the appropriate authorities for Eleven Sports to challenge the rule would be the European Commission or CMA and a challenge through competition law. Indeed, the selling of sports rights is no stranger to such challenges, and comments on the blackout period have already been made in previous EU case law. For example, in Football Association Premier League Ltd and Others v QC Leisure and Others, Advocate General Kolkott stated that it is “doubtful whether closed periods are capable of encouraging attendance at matches”. However, The Times’ investigation into the effect of the live streaming of English Football League games on match day attendances released this week would suggest otherwise.
In any case, it seems likely we will see a decision either way given Eleven Sports determination to fight the rule. In the new dawn of OTT offerings in the live sports sphere, it will be interesting to see if it is joined by any other players in its fight.
“With the best interests of football fans at heart, we are currently considering all legal and regulatory options, including the referral of the case to the appropriate authorities.”