Fans have little hope of blocking deal

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH FANS may protest outside Old Trafford and small shareholders can threaten to vote against the deal, the best hope they have of blocking British Sky Broadcasting's pounds 623.4m takeover of Manchester United is with the competition authorities and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson.

In the next few days, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) will invite comments from any individuals or firms who feel they are affected by the takeover.

But, it is not the OFT's job to decide whether the bid is anti-competitive. The watchdog merely has to decide if it raises public interest issues that require further investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). The public interest is traditionally defined in terms of competition, but can be interpreted more broadly.

After a seven-week period John Bridgman, OFT director-general, makes a recommendation to Peter Mandelson on whether the deal should be referred to the MMC. But, crucially, Mr Mandelson does not have to follow the OFT's advice.

Competition experts said yesterday the takeover raised sufficient questions to merit an MMC investigation - as BSkyB has a near-monopoly on pay television in the UK, while football rights - those of United are among the most prized - are the main reason viewers subscribe to the channels.

Though BSkyB's ownership of United is unlikely to have any immediate impact, it could affect negotiations over television rights when the current Premier League deal expires in 2001. But few observers think the case is strong enough to justify the MMC blocking a takeover.