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Virgin Media calls for Premier League TV rights shake-up

Virgin has asked broadcast watchdogs to look into escalating costs for screening top games before fans are priced out.

Everton's Steven Naismith and Liverpool's Steven Gerrard in Premier League action during the recent Liverpool derby at Anfield. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Virgin Media wants to shake up the way TV rights for the Premier League are sold, before the price goes through the roof and our telly bills go with them.

Virgin reckons the escalating costs of the rights to show top flight football matches is causing "significant consumer harm", and has appealed to UK telecoms and broadcasting regulator Ofcom to open an investigation under the Competition Act 1998.

Currently the rights to screen live broadcasts or highlights of Barclays Premier League soccer matches are auctioned in packages every three years. Sky Sports was the only game in town for Premier League games until BT splashed out on some packages in 2013, to launch its new BT Sport channels and promote its broadband packages. At present, Sky has the vast majority of games, but BT Sport has the rights to show 38 matches live.

That means neither Sky nor BT customers can watch every match. Virgin Media customers can, however -- although Virgin doesn't hold any rights itself it does have deals with both Sky and BT to show their channels. Virgin's problem is that it's beholden to the costs Sky and BT charge for those channels, and when the rights cost more those increases are passed on to Virgin -- and subsequently, to us.

Prices are already heading skywards like the sort of hoofed clearance you just don't see in the Premiership any more. As a result of BT's attempt to break Sky's grip on the Premiership, costs in the most recent auction for 2013-2016 ballooned 70 percent to £3 billion. Virgin reckons the next tender, set to take place next year, could see costs explode by yet another 60 percent.

Industry observer Dominic Baliszewski of broadbandchoices.co.uk reckons a successful challenge from Virgin could buck the trend for household bills and see prices go down instead of creeping up -- "perhaps significantly so."

Baliszewski points out that it would be at least a year before new pricing could be implemented, but highlights the decent deals available in the meantime as Sky, BT and Virgin scrap for your business -- for instance, Virgin Media currently offers both Sky and BT Sports channels with a 12 month discount, while BT Sport is free to BT broadband customers. BT has also today announced a new package in which the superfast fibre optic BT Infinity service is free for the first six months of an eighteen-month contract.

"Anyone thinking that they can't afford premium sports should compare their options," says Baliszewski, "as prices for premium TV may be less than they think."

An Ofcom spokesperson confirmed the competition complaint and says it is "considering the complaint, before deciding whether any further action is required." Sky declined to comment.