The Thing Is: Football rights

It is the deal that has been the making of Rupert Murdoch's Sky satellite TV service since 1992 - the exclusive screening of Premiership football.

Last week the Premier League opened the bidding for the TV rights to the three seasons from autumn 2004. But however keen BSkyB is to keep hold of the deal, chief executive Tony Ball is not going to go to the League with a blank cheque.

BSkyB is unlikely to match the £1.1bn it paid more than three years ago, as these days investors demand prudence. The last deal was in the midst of a boom in both advertising and football rights that is now just a distant memory.

So this time other broadcasters have more hope of getting a slice of the action, especially after a major change in the bidding process. European competition regulators have forced the Premier League to slice up the rights into three lots. There is the Gold package, which comprises 38 games hand-picked by the winning bidder; then comes Silver with a further 38 games, leaving 62 less popular games in the Bronze package. This carve-up has led to speculation that some Premiership games will return to free-to-air TV, either on the BBC or ITV.

Mr Ball must succeed in the negotiations because he cannot afford to lose BSkyB's main moneyspinner. The company needs to get the Gold and Silver packages, at the very least, to hold on to its existing subscribers. Yet it might not have too much competition. The BBC could be reluctant to flash its cash as its charter comes up for renewal and it prepares to face scrutiny from the Government.

The Bronze games are less vital for Sky, but this cheaper package is less attractive to other broadcasters too. Initial indications are that ITV and the BBC would find it hard to find room for so many games in their soap-filled schedules.

BSkyB could well find it has a clear path to the goal, in a game it can't afford to lose.

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