Britain and Belgium cleared to keep major soccer tournaments on free TV

LONDON (REUTERS) - Major international soccer tournaments should remain on free television in Britain and Belgium rather than the rights being sold to the highest bidder, the European Union's highest court ruled on Thursday.

EU members Britain and Belgium stipulate that a number of major sports events must remain on "free to air" television to make them available to as wide an audience as possible.

Fifa, world soccer's governing body, and Uefa, its European counterpart, had challenged the restriction on the grounds that it deprived them of the chance to boost revenues by selling to pay TV companies.

In Britain, the restrictions mean all the games in the World Cup Finals and European Championship have to be shown on either the BBC or ITV.

In Belgium, the rules apply only to the World Cup and public broadcasters VRT (Dutch) and RTBF (French) have the rights.

The EU Court of Justice noted that the tournaments had a broad appeal to viewers beyond hard-core soccer supporters and had long been shown on free television.

"The Court dismisses the appeals brought by Fifa and Uefa in their entirety," the Luxembourg-based court said.

Pay television operators like BSkyB in Britain have invested heavily in sports rights over the past two decades to build up their business.

Sports often have a choice of whether to sign up for lucrative pay TV contracts or maintain wider exposure by sticking with channels that are available in all homes.

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