OFT snubbed over football review

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The Restrictive Practices Court has rebuffed attempts by the Office of Fair Trading to accelerate a high-stakes review of broadcasting contracts for top-level football in the UK, it emerged yesterday.

The OFT, which had taken the Premier League and broadcasters including the BBC and BSkyB to court over the anti-competitive terms of their television contracts, had hoped to oblige all the parties to file their statements by mid-October at the latest. John Bridgeman, director-general of the OFT, had argued the public interest would be served by a swift resolution of the issues.

Lawyers for BSkyB and the BBC, as well as the Premier League of 20 top football teams, resisted the move, saying they should get the full three months provided by law before making their statements.

The review will now only get under way in late November, and is unlikely to be decided until next year.

The delay could be useful to BSkyB and BBC, which hold the live and highlight rights to Premier League matches. The contract, signed in 1992, provides exclusive rights until 1997, after which a second contract, already negotiated, kicks in.

The original pounds 304m, five-year deal included a controversial right for BSkyB to meet the best offer from any competing broadcaster when the contract came up for renewal, although this clause has been dropped .

The OFT will ask the court to consider whether the Premier League is acting as a cartel in collectively negotiating broadcasting rights. The decision could have a huge effect not only on football but on other sports where rights are negotiated on a collective basis.

The Football Association is also a party to the court action, through its formal relationship to the Premiership. It is expected to argue that collective bargaining for rights is the only logical way to operate, and that any effort to insist that individual teams secure their own broadcast deals would lead to chaos.

It is believed that some top teams in the Premier League have pushed for the right to negotiate separately to maximise their broadcast revenues. Individual team rights could be worth considerably more once digital television and pay-per-view services are widely available, allowing viewers to choose which matches they want to see, and when.

Cable companies in particular have said they are interested in providing tailored services for top sport, using their ability to show programming region-by-region as the selling point.

The review of the Premier League deal was requested by the OFT late last year, at the same time as a wide-ranging review of BSkyB's dominant position in the pounds 1bn pay-television sector was launched.

That led to revised informal undertakings from BSkyB on the terms of its supply of programming to the cable industry. Most observers said the undertakings were less onerous than necessary.