Never mind yesterday’s match between Chelsea and Arsenal or any other match that any English club will play in this season. Quite possibly the most important match that English football – or at least one part of it – will be played out at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg this week as the Premier League and Sky Television go head to head with a Portsmouth landlady who feels that she shouldn’t have to pay the cost that Sky want her to pay to show live football matches in her pub. Should she win her case, it could cause the biggest ructions in British football since the Bosman ruling, which changed the nature of the transfer market forever in 1995.
The case is on the surface a very simple one. Murphy’s pub had been showing live football matches on Sky TV but, with her feeling that the cost of continuing to subscribe to Sky was getting too high she purchased a viewing card from and a subcription to a Greek television company called Nova which cost her less than one tenth of the amount of her Sky subscription. However, an enforcement team working behalf of the Premier League visited her premises and in January 2007 she was found guilty of the “fraudulent reception of transmissions” at Portsmouth Magistrates Court. She had to pay £8,000 in costs as a result of this.
The case has now reached the European Court of Justice, with Murphy still feeling that she has done nothing wrong. Her case is based on simple moral principle. She argues that she purchased the viewing card legally and that, as such, she should be able to use it as she sees fit. She considers that it is a restraint of trade that she is unable to use the subscription that she purchased quite legally. She is expected to argue that, in showing matches at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, she is not breaking the law because she is not showing matches that are on at the same time as matches that are being shown live in the United Kingdom. There is some degree of support for her argument from the former Department for Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, James Purnell, who stated in 2006 that:
It is not illegal for a pub or publican to subscribe to a foreign satellite channel as opposed to BSkyB and as the DTI have stated nor is it illegal to import decoder cards from the European Union. However, the legality of screening live UK football games carried on that channel depends on how the copyright to those games was sold or distributed.
It would be wrong of this site to comment upon the rights and wrongs of the legal argument before the case has been heard in full and a verdict reached. We can, however, take a moment to consider what the possible implications of losing this case could be for the Premier League and for televised football in Britain. The current value of the Premier League television deal is worth an enormous amount to the game – the current contracts are worth just short of £1.8bn and there can be little doubt that this will be a record never to be beaten if the law finds in Karen Murphy’s favour. If publicans (or indeed the general public) get legal precedent from the European Court of Justice to pay considerably less than the cost that Sky set as the price for them, a hole could be blown in the value of future television deals, and consequently the financial model that has been the single biggest factor behind the pumped up testosterfest that the Premier League has become in recent years.
It’s difficult to believe that many clubs in the Premier League would have too much of a back-up plan if the business model behind the television money fell in like a pack of cards. The very biggest clubs could theoretically be rescued by their alternative means of revenue. If Manchester United, for example, weren’t so much in debt on account of their leveraged takeover, they would still probably make enough money from their involvement in the Champions League and from match day revenues to keep ticking over. It would, however, be a struggle for all, especially the smaller Premier League clubs, who have become hopelessly over-dependent on television money.
If nothing else (and regardless of what the outcome of the hearing turns out to be), this hearing should at the very least act as a warning to all clubs in the Premier League and to the Premier League itself that they need to either tone down the amount that they spend or ensure that their income streams are more varied than they are at present. Every year, commentators talk excitedly about how valuable the Championship play-off final, while the gap between the richest and the rest grows and grows. A modicum of sanity has long been required in the financial world of the Premier League, and if this case injects a little more common sense into its member clubs, then it will not be before time.