Sky set to lose grip on football

Restrictive Practices Court expected to rule that rivals should be allowed to cover Premier League
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BSKYB is this week expected to lose its exclusive rights to broadcast live Premier League football in a revolution that could inject fresh billions into the game.

A verdict by the Restrictive Practices Court on Wednesday is likely to allow media companies other than BSkyB to show live top division soccer. Clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal will reap the benefit of selling coverage of some of their games individually, rather than just through the Premier League. The decision would also create a bonanza for football fans with far more live matches likely to be available on a variety of channels.

The RPC has spent the last six months considering a complaint by the Office of Fair Trading about BSkyB's contract with the Premier League.

Under the terms of the pounds 670m deal, BSkyB is the only broadcaster allowed to show live Premier League games until 2001. At present, Sky viewers pay a minimum of pounds 25 a month to see 60 of the Premier League's 360 annual fixtures.

John Bridgeman, director- general of the OFT, believes the contract has inflated prices and limited the number of games that viewers are able to see.

He considers that the Premier League is acting as a cartel by dealing on behalf of all 20 top-flight clubs and has also called for an end to exclusive contracts that have allowed one broadcaster to monopolise live coverage.

Insiders believe that the RPC will uphold the Premier League's right to negotiate for the clubs. However it is likely to rule against the use of exclusive contracts. In the new scenario, BSkyB would still be able to buy a chunk of games from the Premier League, but clubs would then be free to sell additional matches to rival broadcasters. Manchester United, which currently receives about pounds 10m from the Premier League, might be able to quadruple that figure through individual deals.

Most witnesses have come down in support of the status quo. The Premier League has defended its power to sell rights on behalf of the clubs, arguing that it enables funds to be redirected to needier clubs.

Even the most successful clubs, with most to gain from negotiating individually, have publicly supported the Premier League's line in solidarity with the rest of the division. However, a director of one successful club admitted: "If the RPC ruled against the League, we would be unbelievably better off."

A spokesman for the Premier League said: 'We await the outcome of the court case with great interest. It is a very important judgment for the future of football."

BSkyB is likely to appeal if the RPC rules against its contract, a process which would take at least nine months. However, insiders consider it unlikely that BSkyB's existing contract will be affected; the changes are likely to come into force when the contract expires in 2001.

BSkyB is understandably concerned about a verdict that would allow other media companies to show live football. Sky has shown live Premier League football since the division's inception in 1992, and the coverage has been judged a great success.

The RPC, which consists of a judge and two lay officials, has heard testimony from a variety of witnesses including cable companies, football clubs, fans and agents. Among those to have given evidence are Chelsea chairman Ken Bates and former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke.

Several BBC Sport executives also gave evidence. The OFT has also challenged the BBC's own contract with the Premier League, under which has the exclusive rights to broadcast Saturday night highlights.