By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News
All to play for: the UK wants to keep major sporting events on free-to-air
Football fans of a nervous disposition may want to look away now as a potential legal 'result' flashes up: Uefa 1 UK Government 0.
For, if European governing body Uefa gets its way, this summer's Euro 2008 championship will be the last that British fans get to watch entirely on free-to-air TV.
Uefa is challenging the British list of "crown jewel" sporting events - those deemed to be of such national importance that they are guaranteed to be shown on terrestrial television.
The Swiss-based football body cannot see why all 31 games at the Euro 2008 championships - which includes the likes of Sweden v Greece and Czech Republic v Turkey - must be shown on free-to-air TV in the UK.
Particularly when the tournament in Switzerland and Austria has no British participants this time round.
'Infringement of rights'
Uefa has laid out its legal case to the European Union, in an action which seeks to annul the UK's listing of the entire European football championship as a free-to-air event.
The football body says the listing "infringes the applicants property rights, as it results in a restriction of the way in which the applicant may market the television rights to the Euro".
It also says showing the entire tournament on free-to-air in the UK "leads to a disproportionate and unjustified distortion of competition on the relevant market".
UK 'Full Live TV Coverage' Protected Sports Events
FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament
European Football Championship Finals Tournament
FA Cup Final
Scottish FA Cup Final (in Scotland)
The Grand National
Wimbledon Tennis Finals
Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
Rugby World Cup Final
At present each member state of the European Union must supply its list of major "protected" TV sports events to the European Commission for approval.
The commission has backed the most recent UK list - which also includes all the games at the World Cup - but now finds itself facing legal challenges from both Uefa and Fifa.
Uefa is appealing against the commission approval of the British TV list and wants to have its future European championships delisted from the UK's "protected" events schedule.
"It is extremely difficult to justify the assertion that every one of the 31 games in the European Championship are of major importance to UK society," Uefa legal representative Alasdair Bell told the BBC.
If Uefa is successful it is thought they would still allow future games featuring British home nations to be shown on terrestrial TV, as well as the final and opening games.
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But, for most of the other matches, it would mean that the BBC and ITV, who have divided this year's match schedule between them, would face competition from pay TV broadcasters like BSkyB and Setanta.
And that would mean Uefa's TV rights agency, Sportfive, looking to raise more from the Euro 2012 tournament than the current Euro 2008 deal, which is reportedly worth about £50m.
There is increasing competition for sports rights and the UK government recognises the effect the "protected" list has.
"We cannot ignore the fact that the listed events regime represents a significant intervention in the market for sports rights," sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe recently observed.
The BBC may face competition for future European championships
"For example, at European level, some international sports bodies are already challenging the extent of member states' lists because listing is perceived to depress the value of the rights."
The most recent UK list is part of the 1996 Broadcasting Act and was drawn up in 1998.
For rights holders and broadcasters the issue may be a financial one, but at a UK and EU political level it is essentially a consideration of what events should be deemed of "major importance to society".
According to the European Commission last year, "the European Championship Finals tournaments" is traditionally considered to be of major importance for UK society.
It goes on to say the event has "a special general resonance in the UK" in its "entirety" as it is "particularly popular with the general public" and not just with those who usually follow sports events.
Of course this is not the way Uefa sees things, and if they are successful then Fifa would be certain to follow them in calling for the group stages of the World Cup to be delisted too.
Daniel Geey, from law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse's sports group, says: "What the list in the UK does is effectively restrict competition to terrestrial broadcasters, to the detriment of pay-TV broadcasters.
"So, we have the rights holder, in this case Uefa, saying they cannot maximise the value of its rights. If I was a rights holder and was told I could not get the maximum value for those rights, I might be inclined to argue that it was a restriction of competition."
Mr Geey said Uefa was not against the notion of the protected list of events, but wanted to know why every game at the European Championships should be on free-to-air TV in the UK, especially when England - or any other home nation - had failed to qualify.
"They think the UK is asking to show more games on free-to-air TV than is necessary, " said Mr Geey.
You may have to be there to watch non-UK football games in future
"However the UK government could argue that England usually makes it to the European Championship finals. Also that the protected list has to be approved months before the final qualifying games are finalised.
"And it could be argued that major football tournaments are of major social significance in the UK."
He added: "There are definitely strong arguments on both sides."
The next internal review of the TV sporting list in the UK is expected in 2009, more than a decade after the last one was drawn up.
In that time the broadcasting of sport and broadcasting in general have changed massively, and continues to evolve in the in the run-up to digital switchover.
There is also now a greater proliferation of outlets for sports material, and a change in public attitudes towards paying for broadcast sports coverage.
But in the meantime, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said that the UK would fight the Uefa action in order to keep live football on free-to-air television.
It said: "We will defend the list. The UK intends to intervene in this [Uefa] case and resist any challenge to the listed events."