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Large revenues from the sale of the broadcast rights for the English Premier League – The result of a well-run league or the proceeds from an anti- competitive cartel?

Some eyebrows were raised when the English Premier League (EPL) recently published the final payments to each of the clubs from the revenue generated by the latest TV deal. The headlines were that Liverpool received the highest individual pay-out of £97,544,336! Cardiff City received the lowest pay-out of £62,082,302. What caught the eye of the headline writers was that the revenue from the lowest pay-out this season (the payment to Cardiff) was greater than the highest pay-out from the previous season (a payment of £60,813,999 to Manchester United).

The 2013-14 season was the first year of the latest 3 year deal for the rights to broadcast EPL games on the television, internet and radio. As part of this deal BSkyB are paying £760 million each year for the rights to broadcast 116 EPL games per season in the UK. BTSport are paying £246 million per year for the rights to broadcast 38 EPL games per season. In addition to selling the rights to broadcast games in the UK, the EPL also separately sells the rights to broadcast games in other countries. For example Cable Thai Holdings paid £205 million for a 3 year deal to show EPL matches in Thailand while NowTV paid £128 million for a similar deal in Hong Kong. In total the EPL earns approximately £1.8 billion per season from the sale of their domestic and international media rights.

The approach taken by the EPL to manage the sale of the broadcasting rights has raised considerable debate amongst economists and policy makers. There are two very different methods that can be used by teams in a league to sell the rights. They are the Individual Sales Model (ISM) and the Collective Sales Model (CSM). In the ISM each club is responsible for marketing and selling the rights to broadcast its home games. The ISM is currently employed by both La Liga in Spain and Primeira Liga in Portugal. In the CSM the rights are sold jointly by the league, federation or national association on behalf of the teams involved. This CSM is currently used by the majority of the football leagues in Europe. The EPL sold the rights for 2013-16 on behalf of the 20 clubs using a sealed bid auction.

Some economists and policy makers have criticised the CSM, claiming that it is an example of a cartel that simply restricts output and leads to higher prices. Each club is considered to be the equivalent of a firm in a traditional industry. The argument is based on a number of observations about the teams. They:

• are each separately owned and submit their own individual set of accounts
• compete with each other to buy inputs (i.e. the players) to produce an output (i.e. a match)
• individually market and set the price for the outputs they produce i.e. the ticket for the games and the prices of the merchandise such as football shirts

If this view of the industry is taken, the league or federation looks rather like a restrictive agreement between independent competitors that creates monopoly market power. As evidence to support this interpretation of the CSM, reference is often made to the details of the contract between the EPL and BSkyB and BTSport. As part of this agreement the number of live matches that can be broadcast is restricted to 154.This represents just over 40% of the maximum total of 380 that could be shown. Teams are effectively prohibited from individually selling the rights to matches that are not selected for broadcast in the collective deal as they must seek permission from the EPL. Over ten years ago the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading commented that:

Within the market the Premier League has a major if not unique position. By selling rights collectively…it is acting as a cartel. The net effect of cartels is to inflate costs and prices. Any other business acting in this way would be subject to competition law and I see no reason why the selling of sport should be treated differently.

The EPL has always defended it actions by claiming that any increase in the number of televised games would have a negative impact on the attendance at matches.

An alternative view focuses on the peculiar or unique characteristics of sports leagues. In particular it is argued that sport is unusual because the level of co-operation required between the teams and a league to produce matches is far greater than that required by firms in other industries to produce output. Agreements have to be made about issues such as the timing and venue of the games as well as the rules under which they will be played. However unlike a traditional cartel arrangement these agreements do not simply control and restrict output. They also improve the entertainment value of the game and hence the quality of the product. Some authors have argued that because of these unique characteristics, the league rather than the individual team should be considered as the equivalent to a firm in a more traditional industry. In this ‘single entity theory’ teams are viewed as divisions of a single organization i.e. the league. The league is treated as a natural monopoly that legally owns the broadcast rights of the clubs rather than a cartel of separate firms. Others have argued that it is more sensible to think of the league as a joint venture between the teams.

Not only are the levels of co-operation required much greater than in traditional industries but it is also argued that competitive balance is important for a successful league. If the same teams always win most of the games then there are concerns that fans will find this boring and it will reduce their willingness to pay to watch matches in either the stadium or on television. It is argued that the CSM makes it easier to distribute the TV money more equally and so helps to maintain competitive balance in a league. The White Paper on Sport published by the European Union in 2007 stated that:

Collective selling can be important for the redistribution of income and can thus be a tool for achieving greater solidarity within sports.

The debate continues about whether the CSM used by the EPL is an example of a restrictive cartel which acts against the public interest or a business practice that helps to improve the quality of the product for the customer.

Premier League clubs earn record-breaking sums thanks to TV bonanza The Telegraph (14/5/14)
Liverpool top earners over season with £99m – and bottom side Cardiff got £64m (so see what your team received in 2013-14 Mail Online (11/5/14)
Cardiff earn more TV cash than champions Man Utd did in 2013 BBC Sport (14/5/14)
Relegated Cardiff Earn More TV Revenue than Man Utd Tribal Football (14/5/14)
TV Bonanza for Premier League Clubs Pars Herald (18/5/14)
Season of woe hits home in money league Express & Star (15/5/14) .

Questions

  1. What is a natural monopoly? Draw a diagram to illustrate your answer.
  2. What is a cartel? Find three real-world examples of cartel agreements.
  3. It was explained in the article how the EPL sells the rights to broadcast just over 40% of the total number of matches played per season. Draw a diagram to illustrate and explain how this might be an example of a cartel agreement that restricts output and results in higher prices.
  4. The EPL defends its decision to restrict the number of games that can be televised in its domestic deal by claiming that any increase would have a negative impact on attendance at the matches. To what extent do you think that watching a live game on the television is a substitute for watching it in the stadium? Draw a demand and supply diagram to illustrate a situation where they are strong substitutes. Explain how the concept of cross price elasticity could be applied to this example.
  5. Outline how a sealed bid auction works. What are the advantages of using a sealed bid auction as opposed to other types of auction.
  6. Can you think of any other economics arguments that could be used to defend the use of the CSM for the sale of the broadcast rights?
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