Fight to televise Premier League matches looms

The football revolution: Bidders line up to wrest control of top matches while schoolgirls take to the field in record numbers
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The Independent Online

A battle for the rights to broadcast Premier League football is looming, as rival bidders line up to wrest control of the sport's top televised matches from the clutches of Sky television.

Although Sky, which is 40 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, remains the favourite, club owners said yesterday rival bids were inevitable.

"We're starting with a blank sheet of paper and the only thing that will determine the outcome is money," said Freddie Fletcher, chief executive of Newcastle United.

The Independent has learnt that at least three groups - sports agency IMG, media company Mirror Group and Orbit, a Rome-based broadcaster owned by Middle Eastern interests - are among the potential rivals. The groups are expected to form consortia to take on Mr Murdoch.

The arrival of competing bidders to the scene is sure to push up the price football owners can extract from the winner. Sky has the edge going into the negotiations. It is coming towards the final stages of a five- year contract - which expires at the end of next season - worth pounds 200m, with the Premier League, and it has the right to match any other offer. Only by bidding more than Sky's deep pockets could handle would a rival win out.

"I don't think it's right to talk publicly about the details of the negotiations," Mr Fletcher said.

"What I can say is that this contract will be worth a heck of a lot more than the last one, and anybody who thinks Sky has it all sewn up just does not know the facts. I will be amazed if there's not enormous interest from broadcasters all over the world."

The emergence of Rome-based Orbit appears to prove Mr Fletcher's point. Sources at the company say its eventual aim is to corner the market for pay-TV in Europe and beyond once regulations are relaxed.

Already it runs a digital multi-channel pay-TV service broadcasting news, entertainment films and sports channels to 23 countries in the Middle East and Africa. It broadcasts Premier League and FA Cup games live to its subscribers through its sports channel. The company, which has its transmission centre outside Rome, is wholly owned by the Mawarid group from Saudi Arabia.

The Premier League is also in talks with the Endsleigh League, which represents the three lower divisions. Its representatives met yesterday in Birmingham to discuss a proposal from the Football Association that would combine rights to the league, the FA Cup and international matches. The FA is offering pounds 117m, raised from a planned pounds 250m five-year deal with Sky, the BBC and ITV.

The Premier League is believed ready to make a counter offer to the Endsleigh League, arguing that by joining forces, the two leagues could extract a higher price from broadcasters.