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Premier League rights model an ‘anathema’ to real markets, says Virgin Media chief

UK pay-television operator Virgin Media has continued its campaign against the means by which rights are sold for the English Premier League, by stating the model for the top division of domestic football is an “anathema” to real markets.

Tom Mockridge, chief executive of Virgin Media, told UK newspaper The Telegraph that broadcasters competing over the lucrative deal has resulted in consumers paying more for access to fewer matches. “The rivalry for the exclusive rights to broadcast live Premier League football is an anathema to real markets: as competition for the rights has grown fiercer, the consumer has suffered, not gained,” Mockridge said.

“The facts speak for themselves; in the UK football fans are only able to watch less than half the games live on TV each season whereas in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, all live games are available and at a much lower price. In short, UK football fans pay twice as much as fans in Europe to watch half the games.”

UK media regulator Ofcom in March said it will canvas the opinions of thousands of football fans as it continued its investigation into a complaint from Virgin Media over the means by which Premier League rights are sold to broadcasters.

Ofcom opened its investigation in November under the UK’s Competition Act, following a complaint from Virgin Media submitted in September 2014. Virgin Media claimed that “significant consumer harm resulting from escalating rights costs” could be addressed through changes to the model for selling live rights to the top division of English football.

Virgin Media’s complaint alleges that the current arrangements for the collective selling of live UK television rights by the Premier League are in breach of competition law. In particular, the complaint raises concerns about the number of Premier League matches made available for live coverage.

Ofcom in February rejected an attempt by Virgin Media to halt the sales process for the next round of domestic rights to the Premier League. UK pay-television broadcaster Sky went on to pay an increase of more than 80 per cent in its rights fee over the next three-year cycle, from 2016-17 to 2018-19, committing a total of £4.176bn (€5.5bn/$6.3bn) over the cycle for 126 matches per year through five packages. Rival pay-television broadcaster BT Sport will pay an average of £320m per year for 42 games in the other two packages.

Mockridge added: “The heart of the issue here is how the Premier League controls the process and this does not justify an exemption from the usual competition law rules that are there to protect consumers. It's not just bad news for football fans, but by extension, to lovers of great British drama and comedy, too.”