Labour bid to `protect' football

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The Independent Online
PREMIER LEAGUE football clubs are to be protected from takeover bids by media companies under tough new rules being drawn up by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, following his decision to block BSkyB's attempt to take over Manchester United.

The Department for Trade and Industry launched a wide-ranging investigation into football ownership amid concerns that more needs to be done to protect the interests of the sport. The pounds 623m bid by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB was blocked last Friday after the Monopolies and Mergers Commission said it would give the media company an unfair advantage in future sports rights negotiations.

Mr Murdoch, responding for the first time yesterday, told Sunday Business he was disappointed but that he was "not going to start a jihad on the government or anything like that".

Mr Byers believes that there is a strong case for Premier League football clubs to be treated differently from other companies when they face takeover bids from broadcasting companies because of the unique problems this creates.

The Government is likely to tighten the rules to allow the competition authorities to investigate offers for teams worth less than pounds 70m. This would protect less glamorous Premier League clubs, such as Southampton, Nottingham or Wimbledon from bids.

The move will delight fans, who fear that their interests are being ignored as football becomes more commercial. The Government's Football Task Force is also conducting an inquiry into the relationship between shareholders and supporters. It is likely to recommend that fans should be given more rights to sit on the boards of clubs which have stock-market listings. It is also expected to come up with proposals about merchandising and ticket prices.

It emerged for the first time yesterday that the Government itself made clear to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) that it did not believe the Manchester United bid should go ahead. In its evidence to the MMC, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it was concerned that "the focus of commercial interests on a few top teams would create less incentive for maintaining a wide base of strong football clubs".

The department's representations, published in appendices to the MMC report, added: "If a small group of clubs at the top of the Premiership were taken over by large companies then the gulf between them and the rest would widen further."

A spokesman for BSkyB said that it was "odd" for a government department to give such a firm view.