Rugby bosses await free-to-air ruling

THE European Court of Justice is to issue a ruling later this week that could impact on the controversial proposals to designate Six Nations and Heineken Cup rugby matches involving Irish teams to be shown on free-to-air TV.

The EU’s highest court will give a judgment on Thursday in a challenge by soccer’s governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, against some EU member states for reserving the broadcasting rights of major football tournaments to free-to-air channels because they are considered to be of national interest.

FIFA is contesting the European Commission’s decision in June 2007 to approve the decision of Belgium and Britain to designate the World Cup finals for broadcast on free-to-air channels. Separately, UEFA is opposing the British government’s decision to reserve the broadcasting rights of the European Championship finals for terrestrial stations.

Both argue that such decisions interfere with their property rights.

The organisations point out that both Belgium and Britain reserved the broadcasting of all the matches in tournament finals, which will not necessarily involve their national teams.

Former Communications Minister Eamon Ryan, came under strong pressure to abandon his plans to ensure free-to-air coverage of major rugby. A decision on the issue, following the completion of a consultant’s report about the financial impact of such a designation on the IRFU’s income, was set aside following the collapse of the Government.

Under an EU directive, all EU members states are allowed to designate sporting and cultural events of national interest for broadcast on free-to-air TV stations.

The Irish Rugby Football Union vehemently opposed Mr Ryan’s plans on the basis that the removal of the freedom to negotiate its own deals with TV stations would have a major negative impact on the sport here.

The IRFU claims the designation of Six Nations and Heineken Cup games involving Irish teams could cost rugby €11 million per annum and would result in many of our top players moving to foreign clubs to earn bigger salaries with a consequential impact on the success of the national team. It has also hinted that a major loss of revenue could lead to the disbandment of the Connacht team.

The IRFU receives €16m per annum from TV rights — €11m for the Six Nations and €5m for the Heineken Cup — representing 24% of its revenue.

Thursday’s ruling is likely to impact on the next Government’s own plans to also retain the soccer World Cup and European Championship finals for free-to-air.

A Fine Gael spokesperson said the party supported the Six Nations being free-to-air. She said Fine Gael was committed to finding the right balance between raising enough money and keeping rugby free-to-air.

Labour’s communications spokesperson Liz McManus said the proposal to designate the Six Nations and Heineken Cup matches was good “in principle”.

However, she acknowledged there were genuine concerns about the impact of such a move. “The cost might simply be too much in the current climate.”

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