Earlier this month, European Commission officials carried out “unannounced inspections in several member states at companies that distribute ‘media rights and related rights pertaining to various sports events and/or their broadcasting,'” raiding the offices of companies including Fox (in London) and Ziggo Sport (in the Netherlands). Now, it turns out that sports agencies IMG and MP & Silva are being investigated as part of this, as per Bloomberg’s Jonathan Browning:
European antitrust officials are focusing on the way major sports events are broadcast after IMG, which owns Premier League rights in Eastern Europe, revealed it was under investigation alongside Fox Networks and Ziggo Sport.
IMG, owned by Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, became the latest rights distributor to confirm that European Union officials raided the company. Sports agency MP & Silva, controlled by a Chinese investment group, was also inspected, the Guardian reported.
…Antitrust raids by EU regulators are a first step in investigating suspected violations and don’t signal guilt, the commission said. IMG was the subject of “an onsite inspection” and is cooperating with the commission, a spokesman for the company said in an emailed statement. A spokesman for MP & Silva declined to comment.
IMG holds rights to many of the biggest sports events including the English and Italian soccer leagues as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
This comes as part of a larger EU move to try and remove controls that block people in one EU country from streaming sports from other EU countries, which became particularly prominent in 2011-12 thanks to a ruling that overturned the conviction of an English pub manager who had been using a Greek decoder card to stream English Premier League matches. And while this is particularly focused on Europe, it could have implications for the larger sports world; IMG and Fox in particular are key players in North American sports as well, and IMG controls rights to events like the FA Cup and Serie A (which they’ve thus-far-unsuccessfully tried to bundle to U.S. broadcasters).
Beyond that, this EU investigation certainly has some potential to alter how sports rights are sold and what they mean, at least in Europe. At least part of the idea there seems to be allowing people in one EU country to watch another EU country’s sports broadcasts, and that could offer consumers more choice and more options (it’s long been noted how England has much less television access to the Premier League than many outside countries, for example), but diminish the value for companies in, say, in-England rights to the Premier League. Consumers might not choose to watch your broadcast if they have options from other countries. And that’s to say nothing of the potential for corruption with country-restricted deals, something that’s been heavily highlighted in the FIFA investigations.
While this specific investigation doesn’t have jurisdiction beyond Europe, it’s notable that similar debates have come up in North America, especially with the CRTC forcing Canada’s Bell Media to stop substituting their ads into U.S. feeds of the Super Bowl for the past two years. (As with the EU situation, that’s a decision loved by many consumers, but resisted by Bell and the NFL thanks to the lower revenue they’ve received as a result.) This EU move isn’t necessarily going to specifically change anything in North America, but it is another push towards increased globalization and lessened regional restrictions in sports. And that’s a rising tide with potential worldwide impacts for a lot of broadcasters and viewers.