Outlook: Second-division deals after Murdoch

RUPERT MURDOCH has blazed the trail; now come the copycat deals. Michael Green's Carlton Communications was yesterday forced to concede that it too is now in the market for a top Premiership team after the Arsenal boardroom proved itself just as leaky a ship as its Manchester United counterpart and blew the gaff.

Carlton has plenty of reasons for wanting to buy the north London club. For starters, it is the weekday ITV franchise holder for London. Then there's its position with OnDigital to protect. Mr Green hopes that his jointly owned digital terrestrial platform will eventually become an important competitor to BSkyB in the market for football rights. He therefore needs his place at the negotiating table too.

But is Arsenal either the right target or an achieveable one? Shares in the club are very tightly held; it is not apparent that any of the three controlling shareholders want to sell. On the other hand, Arsenal is one of only three or four English clubs that would qualify for the European super league, and having achieved the double last season, it is arguably a better side than Manchester United.

But it is not as profitable as Manchester United, it is plainly not as good a brand name internationally, its merchandising operation is smaller than its northern rival, and it needs a new stadium. All this means Arsenal would cost a good deal less than Man United to buy, but that Carlton would end up with a correspondingly poorer club commercially.

It may be that Mr Green can achieve all he needs to merely by taking a minority interest; if so, this would probably be his best course of action.

But even if Carlton does manage to lock the Gunners in to its wider media ambitions, the combination cannot hope to be as powerful a one as that of Man United, the most famous soccer club in the world, and Sky, with its dominant position in British pay TV and open door to Rupert Murdoch's extensive distribution channels in North America and the Far East. The copy cat deals are unlikely to be anything other than pale imitations of the one just announced.

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