Clubs in position to call the shots over new contract

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The Independent Online
Without a doubt, the Premier League is in the driver's seat in the current negotiations to renew its television contract. Rick Parry, the Premier League's chief executive, is handling the talks personally, and has already told potential bidders he expects a sharp increase on the current pounds 60m a year.

In the words of a Premier League insider: "There is an endless range of options, and we haven't ruled anything in or out. It is no secret that we are open to the options, especially those that give the League a more enhanced role in the kinds of broadcasts viewers will see."

Translation? This time, the League wants to keep its rights intact - to dictate terms rather than allow the broadcasters to set conditions.

But Parry cannot act alone. The former accountant and long-time football consultant has one of sport's toughest jobs: dealing with 20 outsized egos that run the country's top clubs. Their names are among the most recognisable in British sport and business: Alan Sugar, the self-made millionaire founder of Amstrad and chairman of Spurs or Ken Bates, the controversial chairman of Chelsea. They are proud, strong-willed owners and managers, and seldom agree on much.

Parry has proved expert at bringing them together on the issue of television rights. The Premier League deal with Sky, reached in 1992, was a triumph for Parry and a handful of activist chairmen, including Sugar. For the first time, with the help of Sky Television, the top English clubs tapped a big share of the money that football can effortlessly generate.

The result was a massive improvement in stadium comfort, huge sums paid for the world's best players and a healthy jump in attendance at football grounds - up 30 per cent since the first television contract was signed four years ago.

This time around, the League wants even more. But insiders insist the negotiations are about more than money. Club chairmen are concerned about the effect of saturation television on attendance at the grounds and want a contract that will give the teams wide exposure on both terrestrial and pay-television without driving down gate receipts.

There is also friction between the very top teams - Manchester United, Newcastle, and Liverpool - and those lower down the league table. The best teams are juggernaut brand names in their own right, able to generate interest not only in the UK but abroad. Matches involving the top six teams could earn a fortune for the club's owners. Manchester United have even looked at the prospects of launching their own cable channel.

But Parry has managed to keep the chairmen together on the issue of collective rights. "The deal has to be good for everyone, not just the top teams," says a Premier League source. "The mix of views is terribly important."

The League also wants to see more money pumped into the game's development. The Football Trust, which funds ground improvements and finances youth training, could see its income from the pools and "spot the ball" competitions drop by 40 per cent this year to pounds 20m because of the National Lottery. Alan Sugar and Newcastle United's Sir John Hall have both suggested redirecting television money - perhaps up to 25 per cent of the total - to the trust.

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