As Sky continues to pursue criminal cases against UK pub landlords who opt for foreign satellite feeds of otherwise unavailable live football, the Guardian’s David Conn takes a dim view of Murdoch Inc.’s role in the betterment of the game.
Landlords of locals in Portsmouth, Rochdale and West Bromwich have successfully defended prosecutions in recent months, arguing that they were not acting dishonestly when they bought boxes and smart cards to enable them to show live Premiership games from Greek or Arabic TV stations.Paul Dixon, a solicitor from the firm Molesworths Bright Clegg, who represented four of those acquitted and has nine further cases pending, accuses the Premier League of heavyhandedness. “It is arguable that the landlords are not even breaching civil laws or contracts by paying for a broadcast from overseas, but by mounting criminal prosecutions the Premier League is bullying publicans simply to protect Sky’s monopoly over football,” he said.
The Premier League is sensitive to that charge but argues that it is duty-bound to defend the exclusive TV rights for which Sky pays so handsomely. “That money goes into football, including the grass roots,” a spokesman said. “Landlords who show matches without paying Sky are breaching copyright law and we will prosecute. In the next month we will be targeting raids against the suppliers of the equipment.”
News Corporation has become one of the world’s most powerful media empires substantially on the payments of English people who have nowhere else to go to watch live league football. BSkyB’s most recently published figures boast 8.2m subscribers, a third of British homes, paying an average £388 each a year, making Sky’s total earnings from domestic subscribers £3.2bn. Industry research has found most football fans would drop their Sky subscriptions if it lost the rights to Premier League matches.
Prosecutions of modest provincial pubs might look a touch rabid, but as watching football in the pub has become a central feature of our sporting culture, it has become a huge business for BSkyB. Its charges have steepled, ranging up to £2,210 per month, £26,520 a year, for a town-centre pub subscription.
With 47,000 commercial subscribers, mostly pubs and clubs, it is believed that BSkyB recoups its whole outlay for the Premiership TV rights solely from this market. No wonder landlords are keen to explore beaming Al-Jazeera in for a fraction of the price, or that the Premier League is fiercely enforcing the crackdown.
It is remarkable that the Office of Fair Trading here and the European Commission, twice, have bludgeoned away at the Premier League’s monopolistic TV arrangements yet failed to ensure that a single live match is available on terrestrial TV.