BSkyB faces landmark ruling on football rights

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The Independent Online
THE FUTURE of televised football is due to be decided this week in a High Court judgment which is expected to have far reaching ramifications.

The long-awaited decision by the Restrictive Practices Court, following a complaint by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over the Premier League's exclusive deal with BSkyB, is set to become a legal landmark in Britain. It will also be closely examined by the European Commission, which is looking into broadcasting arrangements for the forthcoming European Champions' League.

The Office of Fair Trading has maintained that the Premier League has acted as a cartel in dealing on behalf of the 20 top clubs in England and has also asked for an end to exclusive contracts of the type currently held with BSkyB, allowing it to monopolise live coverage.

According to sources in both football and the legal field, the High Court is expected to uphold the right of the Premier League to negotiate on behalf of the clubs. However, it may conclude that those games not being shown by BSkyB should be allowed to be screened by other broadcasters.

This will allow clubs to sell the additional matches to other channels, enabling clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea to rake in vast extra sums. Manchester United, which receives around pounds 10m on at present can easily get that three times that sum through various deals.

Under the terms of the current pounds 670m deal, BSkyB is the only broadcaster allowed to show live football until 2001. Its viewers, who pay a minimum of pounds 25 a month, get to see 60 Premiership games. It is the other 300 which could now be up for offer.

If the the RPC rules against its exclusive contract, BSkyB is almost certain to appeal. However, if the current format is allowed to continue, the company, and rival broadcasters, are expected to start negotiations almost immediately for the seasons following 2001.

The BBC, which paid the Premier League pounds 73m for exclusive rights to broadcast Saturday night highlights, was also a subject of the OFT complaint.

That contract too, may, be subject to alterations, allowing other stations to broadcast the highlights of games which are not being shown.