BSkyB asked to share football

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The Independent Online
BRITISH SKY Broadcasting is under pressure to relinquish its exclusive grip on Premiership television rights as a condition for its pounds 623m takeover of Manchester United being allowed to go ahead.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which is preparing a report on the takeover, has written to BSkyB and Manchester United, suggesting the broadcaster does not buy rights to matches it does not intend to show. The clause is one of a number the commission may insist on in return for agreeing to the takeover. The watchdog is due to deliver its report to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, by 12 March.

Industry experts believe the clause could provide the basis for a compromise in the dispute between the Office of Fair Trading and the Premier League, currently being heard in the Restrictive Practices Court. The OFT, which accuses the Premier League of acting as a cartel, wants to increase the amount of live football on television. BSkyB's current contract with the Premier League allows it to broadcast 60 live matches a season. Because the arrangement is exclusive, the other 320 matches are not shown.

If the commission insists on the condition, BSkyB would either have to expand massively its coverage of Premier League matches or agree to allow other broadcasters to televise matches. City analysts said that with the explosion in the number of channels with the arrival of digital television, BSkyB could increase its coverage.

However, lawyers for BSkyB argue that it would make it almost impossible to put a value on the contract. At the moment, BSkyB chooses the matches it wants to show several months in advance. The Premier League is also resisting the move. It argues that increasing the number of games on television would cause fixture chaos.