Virgin Media lodges Premier League rights complaint

UK pay-television operator Virgin Media has asked broadcast regulator Ofcom to open a formal investigation into how the Premier League, the top division of English football, sells its television rights.

Virgin Media has taken to Ofcom ahead of the next Premier League rights tender, which is expected to launch in the new year with the next batch of three-year deals announced before the end of the 2014-15 season.

Pay-television broadcasters BSkyB and BT Sport are the current rights-holders to the Premier League in the UK. BT purchased two of the seven available rights packages in the three-year cycle from 2013-14 to 2015-16, for £246m (€308m/$387m) per season, with Sky acquiring the other five packages for £760m per season.

Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to open an investigation under the Competition Act 1998. It claims that “significant consumer harm resulting from escalating rights costs” can be addressed through changes to the model for selling live rights.

Brigitte Trafford, Virgin Media’s chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement: “The rapidly rising cost of Premier League live broadcast rights means UK fans pay the highest prices in Europe to watch football on TV. Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to investigate how the rights are sold ahead of the next auction.”

UK news agency the Press Association said Virgin Media’s complaint is understood to suggest that fans in the UK have to pay £51 per month for access to all Premier League matches on television, while it is £25 in Italy, £21 in Germany, £18 in Spain and £10 in France.

Virgin Media added: “A review is required with the next auction imminent and a further 60 per cent inflation in costs predicted.”

Virgin Media lodged its complaint with Ofcom two weeks ago and a decision is expected in late October or early November.

The company is engaged in carriage deals for Premier League rights with both Sky and BT Sport and is understood to have no intention in bidding in the next rights tender.

The Premier League said in a statement: “Live Premier League audio-visual rights have always been sold in a transparent and open process. Regulators have examined our rights packaging and sales process in considerable detail in the past and found both of them to be compliant with UK and European competition law. If Ofcom chooses to investigate this complaint, we will of course be happy to demonstrate to Ofcom that this is the case.”