Leading Article: TV football deal is as near as possible to a level playing field

THE JUDGMENT handed down yesterday upholding the Premier League's exclusive broadcasting deal with BSkyB and the BBC is a victory for common sense. It is not a perfect solution, but, in supporting the status quo, the Restrictive Practices Court has opted for the lesser of two evils.

Clearly there was an anti-monopolistic case to be made that individual clubs should have the right to make their own agreements with the TV company or channel of their choice. In a sense, too, and despite the alleged existing glut of televised football, the public has been deprived by BSkyB's screening live of only 60 of the 380 Premiership games in a season. Finally, any agreement that leaves Rupert Murdoch in ultimate charge of coverage of the showcase competition for our national sport leaves something to be desired. In the light of yesterday's ruling, the Government's veto on Sky's purchase of Manchester United, the Premiership's most precious jewel, makes more sense than ever.

But so too does the defeat for the Office of Fair Trading in its attempt to break open the television market for football and - naive hope - bring down the cost for ordinary viewers. There are some areas of life where the logic of the market should not reign untrammelled. The arts is one such area; public transport (as headlines every day make clear) is another. Football on television is a third.

A decision to open up Premiership coverage to all comers would have made an unsatisfactory situation even worse. Already, the torrent of money into the game (the current four-year deal with Sky and the BBC is worth pounds 743m) has speeded up the emergence of a de facto league within a league: once, eight or 10 clubs entered a season with a plausible hope of ending it as champions; today, their number is three or four. Nothing was more instructive than the opposition to the OFT's case from Manchester United and Arsenal - the very clubs likely to have benefited most from deregulation.

But the Premiership's "Big Two" knew full well that their good fortune could spell the death of the competition that has made their fame. The Sky deal's great merit is that it spreads television revenue reasonably equally among all 20 Premiership clubs, giving the poor a modicum of resources to compete with the rich. Pay-per-view would change all that; Dennis Bergkamp or David Beckham is one thing, the honest toilers of Bradford City are quite another. Remove the redistributive prop, and the Premiership might soon become irrelevant, with its fixture-scheduling at the whim of a score of competing TV stations. Like it or not, a permanent European super league would probably become inevitable. The end of civilisation as we know it? Not quite. But neither, surely, is it the wish of even this nation of lager-lounge and couch supporters.

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