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The COVID-19 pandemic caused grave disruption to the 2019/2020 Premier League season – but it did not fundamentally change the format of the competition. That was the conclusion the High Court reached in the context of a $200 million contract dispute concerning overseas television rights.
By two contracts, covering three football seasons, a Hong Kong company agreed to pay over $700 million for the right to broadcast Premier League football matches and highlights in China. In withholding instalments totalling over $200 million due under the contracts, the company argued that, due to the pandemic, it had not got what it bargained for. The Premier League terminated the contracts and launched proceedings to recover the withheld sums.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the relevant Premier League season was temporarily suspended on 13 March 2020, shortly before the first lockdown. When the season resumed in June 2020, it was in very abnormal conditions. Amongst other things, matches were played in stadia devoid of fans. More than 90 fixtures had to be compressed into a period of under five weeks; kick-off times were modified and a greater percentage of matches were played mid-week.
In granting the Premier League summary judgment on its claim, however, the Court found that none of those circumstances fundamentally changed the format of the competition so as to excuse the company from paying the full contract sums. The season was completed; fixtures were played home and away; points were awarded in the ordinary manner and a league champion was duly declared.
From the company's point of view, the conditions under which the season resumed were very different, and much less commercially advantageous, than it had hoped. However, the Court noted that the English law of contract does not require or expect contracts to be renegotiated or rewritten simply because events turn out differently than expected. Such an approach would lead to confusion, indeed chaos.
In ordering the company to pay an aggregate sum of $212.973 million to the Premier League, plus interest, the Court found that none of its defences to the claim stood a real prospect of success. Given its findings, the Court also ruled that the Premier League had validly terminated the contracts.