In the UK, ‘listed sporting events‘ are those that must be made available for the general public to view on terrestrial television free of charge. Rival broadcasters can compete with one another for the right to broadcast the event on their channel (the rights will generally go to the highest bidder), but ultimately the events must be aired for free. This means that subscription-only channels and Pay-Per-View stations may not acquire the rights to air the event.
Listed sporting events in the UK are drawn up by the Secretary of State and include (non-exhaustively) events such as the Wimbledon Championship Finals, the FA Cup Final, the Olympic Games, the Rugby World Cup, the FIFA World cup and the UEFA European Championships. The law requires these events to be made available for all citizens to see, on the basis that they form a great cultural and social importance to the country’s national sporting identity. Not only is this system endorsed by the English legal authorities, but it is also a requirement that the European Commission approve the list of events (through what is called the ‘Television Without Frontiers’ Directive).
Given that this is also a European-driven system, other member states of the EU can be seen to implement a list of free-to-air events too. In Austria, the events are predominantly ski-based. In Belgium the events are closely linked to cycling. Germany, like England, is a strong footballing nation. Ireland is keen on horse-racing and hurling. It is no coincidence that the sport(s) of choice are heavily linked to that nation’s sporting identity. As a result, it is also fair to assume that anyone who wishes to legally challenge the system will struggle to succeed. This is because the basis for which the scheme operates (i.e. that the chosen sports have significant cultural importance to each country) seems fair and justified.
However, this has not deterred either FIFA or UEFA. Both organizations have lodged complaints against the fact that the UK is entitled to air the whole of the UEFA European Championships and the FIFA World Cup for free. They realize that much money could be made if they were able to sell the broadcasting rights in the UK for their tournaments. The basis of the complaints is that watching a game that does not involve the England team cannot be justified as having an important connection to the national identity of the country. Indeed the England team failed altogether to qualify for the UEFA European Championships 2008, however the whole tournament was aired for free in the UK.
The argument seems fair on the face of it, however I would maintain that the it is not as black and white as it is presented. Football was created in England. Many of the players playing in the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships also play in the Premier League (England’s top-tier of professional football). The Premier League is the single biggest money-generating brand in world football. It is also English, and a fundamental part of England’s sporting identity. The link is there to be seen and it is a strong one. The ever-increasing commercialization of sport means that money is moving closer and closer to the center of the sporting universe (if it isn’t there already). However, my opinion is that nobody should be entitled to take away a person’s divine right to watch live sport which he identifies as forming a part of his country’s national and sporting identity.
Money may well be an influential factor when it comes to broadcasting in sport. However, sport is nothing without supporters, spectators and, from a broadcasting sense, viewers. This principle is evidently respected by the scheme securing the free coverage of listed sporting events.
Whether UEFA and FIFA’s complaints succeed remains to be seen. I have read many articles suggesting that the NFL’s commercial strategy will ultimately result in the Superbowl one day being made a Pay-Per-View event. I wonder how our American readers would react to that.