According to a confidential report seen by the Independent the digital revolution will generate pounds 2.5bn a year for the top 20 clubs of the Premier League, 50 per cent more than the entire BBC takes from licence fee-payers.
Such sums would allow English teams to scour the world for football's biggest talent, giving players true superstar status world-wide, and the pay cheques to prove it. From the days in the 1950s when working-class heroes such as Stanley Matthews earned a comparative pittance, to the wages breakthrough of the Sixties, English football can look forward to truly serious money at last.
The private study, by the polling firm Harris, has encouraged top teams to hold out for a far more lucrative deal when the rights to broadcast Premier League matches from 1997 are discussed at a key League meeting in Coventry late next week.
The figures suggested in the study, based on a sample of 4,000 viewers from around the country, dwarf all previous estimates of the likely revenues from pay-per-view. Respondents were asked whether they would pay, and how much, to watch top football. If all matches were transmitted at various times of the day, at a charge of pounds 10 a viewing, then the League as a whole would receive pounds 2.5bn in gross revenues. Even after paying broadcasting fees and other costs, the net income might top pounds 1.9bn.
Teams would receive varying amounts, depending on their popularity and rank. Manchester United, which topped the League this past season, could earn as much as pounds 382m in a single year. A lower-placed team, such as Wimbledon, might receive about pounds 20m. The League as a whole only received pounds 60m from all television deals this past season. Some clubs, including the study's sponsors, Manchester United, believe the huge sums could allow English teams to bid for the best players in the world."If we don't do it, then somebody else will," said a senior executive at a top club.
Canal Plus has already launched its digital service in France. Telepiu, the pay-TV broadcaster, has plans to develop the market in Italy, home to Europe's leading league. If it exploits its television rights effectively, the Italian league could become even more profitable in the age of digital, multi-channel television.
The senior executive also warned that if the English clubs do not push for a pay-per-view future, the domestic game could be eclipsed by rival European football leagues, thereby threatening not only broadcast revenues but the lucrative world-wide marketing potential of branded merchandise.
A team of the world's best players might cost pounds 90m a year - a wage bill affordable only by teams with access to the kinds of revenues that could be generated by digital television. If pay-per-view is really as lucrative as the study suggests, annual revenues at the clubs will soar.
Clubs are keen use pay-per-view to shift the cost of watching football away from the fans who actually go to games. "The armchair supporter will have to pay more," said the executive. Such a move could mean lower ticket prices and avoid the potential embarrassment of games being televised live in front of rows of empty seats with no atmosphere within the ground.
The question of pay-per-view is likely to dominate discussions about the renewal of the TV rights. The current deal, which runs out next season, is worth pounds 304m over five years, and negotiations have already begun on the next contract. Many clubs expect to be able to extract three times that amount from one of the two groups bidding for the rights - Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, the current holder, and a consortium made up of Mirror Group and Carlton, Michael Green's media giant. They are being asked to outline their proposals next week.
The Premier League is split over the issue of pay-per-view, despite the astonishing figures being suggested. The rival bidders are aware of the split within the League, and both have assured Rick Parry, the Premier League's chief executive, that they are willing to offer a "bridging" deal until digital television becomes widely available in the UK, probably after 1997.