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Virgin Media chief makes fresh Premier League coverage call

UK pay-television operator Virgin Media has fired the latest shot in its campaign surrounding the broadcast of English Premier League football games by stating that the league should consider introducing a regional blackout system to allow it to show all 380 matches per season live on television.

The Premier League has long supported the belief that a blackout window should be in place for games played at 3pm on Saturdays in an effort not to negatively impact on attendances in lower league football.

However, Virgin Media chief executive Tom Mockridge has argued a change is necessary to stop continuing inflation in the cost of live rights. He said 77 per cent of Virgin customers, around a third of whom subscribe to pay-television broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, thought sports channels were now too expensive. Arguing the provisions had created a “nanny state”, Mockridge said, according to UK newspaper The Guardian: “Consumers are entitled to make their own choices rather than have other people make them for them.”

Mockridge admits making all matches available live may not bring the cost of rights down but would act to curb inflation and allow fans more choice. He said the rules in the UK jarred with those in the US and the rest of Europe.

He added: “The Premier League argues there is a consumer benefit in limiting the number of matches. We would argue the opposite. I am not criticising the Premier League. (Executive chairman) Richard Scudamore has done a terrific job for them but it’s up to (regulator) Ofcom to act as the referee. Their primary aim is to protect the consumer. What is the consumer benefit in showing only 40 per cent of the games on TV?”

Ofcom opened its investigation into the sale of Premier League rights in November 2014 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. Sky went on to pay an increase of more than 80 per cent in its rights fee over the next three-season 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. BT Sport will pay an average of £320m per season for 42 games in the other two packages.

Mockridge maintained that any changes could only be sensibly introduced for the league’s next rights cycle from 2019-20.