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Virgin wants Premier League rights auction halted

BT-SportUK cable provider Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to pause the current Premier League TV rights auction until the broadcast regulator has concluded an investigation into the process.

Virgin yesterday filed an ‘application for interim measures’ with Ofcom, calling for a temporary halt on the auction of live UK television rights to top flight English football.

Virgin said that Ofcom could do this under the Competition Act to “prevent significant damage to a particular person or category of person”, in this case fans who want to watch live football on TV, calling for a the auction process to be suspended until Ofcom concludes itsinvestigation into Premier League rights sales process in March.

“The Premier League has pushed ahead with its early sale of TV rights despite Ofcom’s investigation. With 18 months until those deals begin, there is plenty of time for Ofcom to pause the auction process while it completes its inquiries,” said Virgin Media’s chief corporate affairs officer, Brigitte Trafford.

“Failure to do so will leave fans, who already pay the most to see the least amount of football in Europe, facing yet another big rise in the cost of watching live football on TV.”

Ofcom launched its investigation into how the English Premier League sells live TV rights for its matches back in November, following a complaint by Virgin Media.

Ofcom is considering whether there is a breach of the UK and/or EU competition law prohibition on agreements and decisions that restrict or distort competition.

The current Premier League auction could be concluded as early as next month and covers TV rights for the period 2016 to 2019.

In July 2012 Sky and BT paid £3 billion (US$4.5 billion) to carve up the matches between 2013 and 2016, with the price likely to increase during the current round of negotiations – something that has the potential to have a knock-on effect on the cost to viewers.

However, in a blog post today, Sky defended its investment in sports over the years, with Sky Sports’ managing director Barney Francis claiming that “nowadays, viewers have never been so well served.”

“In the month before Sky Sports began, just 27 hours of sport were shown on TV. Only half of an England football international was shown because of a clash with Neighbours, [a]nd Botham’s Ashes in 1981 was interrupted for kids’ TV shows. Back then, sport was under-funded and under-valued. Surely no one would want to turn back the clock,” said Francis.

Sky claims to offer 5,000 hours of sport a month across seven channels and says that, to date, it has invested“more than £15 billion in sport, providing a much-needed injection of funding at all levels.”

“The debate around sport on television is an important one but often harks back to a bygone era. These days, pay TV is far from a niche product enjoyed by the few. Well over half the UK population subscribes to a pay TV service and Sky Sports is readily available in all those homes,” said Francis.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, Discovery Communications will join the auction for Premier League rights in the UK, competing against Sky and BT.