The limitations of the Barroom Bosman

The European court ruling that pubs can show cheap Greek coverage of English football wasn’t so significant after all.

Duleep Allirajah

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It was heralded on Tuesday morning as a revolution: a humble pub landlady striking a blow against the evil Murdoch Empire. It’s David-versus-Goliath stuff. The barstool football-fan’s very own Bosman ruling. The value of Sky shares immediately fell by three per cent. ‘Punters 1 Premier League 0’, proclaimed the Daily Mail website. However, by teatime – the time it took for legal analysts to actually study the lengthy ruling – it appeared less like a revolutionary decree and more like a complex, loophole-ridden judgement that won’t benefit anyone apart from copyright lawyers.

Karen Murphy had fought a six-year legal battle with the English Premier League (EPL) over her decision to use a Greek decoder to broadcast matches in the Red, White and Blue pub in Southsea. The European Court of Justice ruled that ‘National legislation which prohibits the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards is contrary to the freedom to provide services’. Although live matches can’t be broadcast on Saturday afternoons in this country, many fans have found ways to circumvent the 3pm blackout. If you can’t get to the stadium it’s not too difficult to locate a dodgy boozer or pirate website showing live Premiership games on a Saturday afternoon. On the face of it, the judgement appears to legitimise the use of foreign satellite-TV decoders to watch EPL games.

Unsurprisingly, before the judgment could be properly digested, some pundits were celebrating a victory for the little people against the corporate behemoth that is the EPL. ‘A victory for the working man’, as one punter told the BBC. The Premier League and BSkyB have become all-purpose punchbags for traditionalists who feel that TV money has ruined football. A common lament about ‘modern football’ is that the EPL, in wanting to attract new ‘customers’ has helped supplant terrace culture with cheesy Americanised sportertainment. Fans and managers alike are unhappy that fixtures and kick-off times are frequently shifted at the behest of the broadcasters. Even Sir Alex Ferguson complained recently that the TV companies have ‘too much power’ over fixture schedules. ‘When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price. Television is God at the moment’, said Fergie (and yes, we can all see the irony there).

However, while Premiership club bosses aren’t enamoured by Sky’s influence over kick-off times, they don’t want to lose the TV revenue on which they have come to depend. Wolves chief executive Jez Moxey was concerned that the ruling might have an adverse effect on TV income. ‘It’s not a decision that the Premier League or its clubs wanted’, Moxey said. ‘The Premier League have been aware of the situation and the possibility of the judgement going against them for some time now and have been assessing how it will sell TV rights going forward.’

What then are the ramifications of the ECJ judgment for English football? Could it drive down pay-TV prices for consumers as BSkyB’s monopoly on decoders is broken? Will BSkyB take a big financial hit if pubs or individuals switch to foreign providers? Will this have a knock on effect on the next Premiership rights deal? Will EPL clubs get less money from broadcasting revenues in the future?

Ever since football first shook hands with the devil, to use Fergie’s metaphor, there have been dire warnings that the End of Football is Nigh. Yet, somehow the marriage of football and television survives and, indeed, continues to thrive. This week’s ECJ ruling provoked another little flurry of doom-mongering. Unsurprisingly, reports of the EPL’s death were, once again, greatly exaggerated. The Premier League will have to rethink how it sells its broadcasting rights across Europe. However, as many analysts now recognise, the worst-case scenario for the EPL has failed to materialise.

What is clear is that individuals will be legally able to use foreign decoders to watch football at home. However, if you’re thinking of buying a Greek decoder card to watch EPL games on Saturday afternoons, think again. The Nova service, which Karen Murphy used, costs £45 a month – more than a Sky Sports subscription. You’ll also have to put up with Greek commentary but, then again, some might regard this as a bonus.

Contrary to the plethora of ‘pub landlady wins landmark ruling’ headlines, it would appear that victory is somewhat pyrrhic. Karen Murphy’s conviction for using a Greek satellite service will probably be quashed when the case returns to the High Court. Pubs will be free to buy cheaper decoders from abroad. However, the ECJ ruled that ‘the screening in a pub of football-match broadcasts containing protected works requires the authorisation of those works’. What is meant by ‘protected works’? Although the football itself is not copyrighted, protected works might include the Premier League anthem, goal replays or league branding. An EPL logo displayed permanently on the screen might, for example, require pub landlords to seek permission from the Premier League to broadcast matches.

In other words the status quo is preserved. The football will be televised but the revolution has been put on pause. Not such a great result for pubs or punters after all. Or, to put it another way: ‘Copyright Lawyers 1 – Everyone Else 0’.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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