Leading Article: Let's not turn football into a game of monopoly

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The Independent Culture
PLANS TO set up a European superleague are not just about football. This is an issue of money, power and attempted monopoly. The transformation of sport into big business is one of the most striking developments of recent years, and football in particular is now a big part of a big sector of the economy: entertainment and leisure. Economic commentators are currently worked up over the threat to manufacturing industry from the strong pound; they should be equally exercised over the future of the manufacturing of footballing entertainment.

Even for non-football-fans, the objection to the superleague scheme is that it is an attempt to create a market and corner it. The combination of football and television is big money, already controlled to an unhealthy extent in this country by Rupert Murdoch. Mr Murdoch's plans to extend that control to the European level, in concert with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon, should be attacked before they get off the ground by the European Union's competition authorities. At the very least, the British Government should be publicly arguing for the principles of openness and competition. Instead, Tony Blair is tainted by his willingness to back Mr Murdoch's BSkyB - because it is a "British business" despite its Australo-American owner - in that famous telephone call to the Italian prime minister about an earlier Murdoch-Berlusconi tie-up. The fact that Mr Berlusconi is currently appealing against a bribery charge may not be particularly relevant. What is, is the known tendency of both media moguls to renege on undertakings to preserve competition. These are not the kind of business leaders for whom the Prime Minister should be cheerleading.

Sporting leagues are a peculiar economic animal, a cross between a natural monopoly and an independent regulator (of clubs and players). In the US, where the development of sport as big business, and anti-monopoly laws, is further advanced than in Europe, the baseball league has a special exemption from competition law, dating from 1922, and the National Football League has regular run-ins with the courts enforcing what Americans call "anti-trust" law. It would not be desirable, therefore, for the likes of Messrs Murdoch and Berlusconi to "own" European football. (Mr Blair should have learnt this lesson from his dealings with Bernie Ecclestone, who effectively owns Formula One motor-racing.)

This is related to the purely sporting considerations of openness and fair competition. The detailed plans for the superleague, which we publish today, confirm that membership would be by invitation not competition. Clubs such as Milan (proprietor: S Berlusconi) will be admitted on the basis of wealth rather than talent. One of the glories of the present structure of British and European football is that it would be possible for a lover of the game to start a team or take over a non-league team and take it to the top within, say, 12 years, by virtue of player selection, team building and vision. That dream is especially vivid at this time of year, when all teams are equal and all are full of hopes of greatness. In living memory, Premiership team Wimbledon were in the Southern League. Today, they could win the European Cup and arguably be the best team in the world.

Or, to take an example closer to the heart of Downing Street, look at Burnley. Lifelong fan Alastair Campbell is the Prime Minister's press secretary. Once one of England's greatest clubs, Burnley are up against Wycombe and Macclesfield in the Second Division. But they could come back up, as long as we preserve a system based on merit not money. It matters, then, that football's European governing body, Uefa, whatever its faults, should retain control of any new venture, just as the Football Association did with the Premiership. We must not allow media tycoons to shut the privileged few clubs in their gated community. Have a word with the boss, Alastair.