Football chiefs see chance to score on Net

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The Independent Online

Two of the most high-profile business figures in English football yesterday hailed the advent of high-speed internet access as the most lucrative way of exploiting the sport's commercial potential.

Two of the most high-profile business figures in English football yesterday hailed the advent of high-speed internet access as the most lucrative way of exploiting the sport's commercial potential.

Freddie Fletcher, executive chairman of Newcastle United and a television consultant with the cable group NTL, told the Edinburgh International Television Festival: "The great thing the internet does is give a club worldwide exposure. It's a cost-effective way for the clubs to market themselves."

But Mr Fletcher cautioned against football clubs taking charge of their own media distribution and rights exploitation. He said: "Our view at Newcastle was that we didn't have the expertise .... We'll use media companies to distribute the content to drive the business."

Plans for a dedicated Newcastle United channel would depend on digital television having a sufficient number of subscribers, Mr Fletcher added.

Meanwhile David Dein, vice-chairman of both Arsenal Football Club and the Football Association, expressed optimism about football's commercial prospects in the digital age. He said: "I'm very bullish. The product is in great demand. That's why we're still building new stadia."

Mr Dein defended the high level of broadcast exposure which football currently receives. He said: "It is on TV every day. I think we have got it right," noting that attendance at Premier League grounds is over 90 per cent of capacity.

He warned, however, that the proposed ending of the transfer system, which is being considered by the European Union, could be a "disaster" for the industry. He said: "It is a timebomb waiting to go off. There could be extremely serious consequences should it end."

Mr Dein said smaller clubs could be particularly hurt and urged football leagues across Europe to lobby Brussels. "It is up to football to go to the EU and make a proposal that is acceptable to them," he said.

Mr Dein confirmed that Arsenal is still evaluating potential media partners following its aborted talks with Carlton Communications.

"It's still being thought about," he said, adding that the price for a deal "is a moving target." Arsenal directors are also considering whether the Ofex-quoted club should seek a full stock-market listing, a move which could value the group at £200m - second only to Manchester United among English clubs.

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