Media giants in billion-pound battle for Premier League deal

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The Independent Online
Three media giants - Lord Hollick's MAI-United, Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB and a consortium comprising Mirror Group and Carlton - yesterday delivered sealed bids to the Premier League for the right to broadcast top football in the UK.

BSkyB's bid was handed over late last night, after last-minute consultations by telephone between BSkyB chief executive Sam Chisholm and Mr Murdoch. The two men made a final decision on the amount of the bid, which included the option of a cheeky low-ball offer.

MAI, which had kept its plans highly secret, is now known to be bidding on its own, offering between pounds 150m and pounds 200m a year over 10 years. Mirror/Carlton was also thought to be offering as much as pounds 1bn over five years for the exclusive live broadcast rights.

The 20 club chairmen were due to gather in Coventry this morning to review the offers, and could pick a winner as early as tomorrow. Some club executives had to return to the UK from holidays and business abroad, including Alan Sugar, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, who flew in from Greece late last night. The crucial two-day meeting takes place just before the launch of the Euro 96 football championship at Wembley on Saturday.

The current contract with BSkyB, which expires next year, was worth about pounds 60m a year to the Premier League. But the runaway success of top football, and the prospect of billions of pounds from the broadcast of matches on a pay-per-view basis in a few years' time, have together boosted the price- tag for the exclusive rights - probably by a factor of three.

"We always knew the price was going to go through the roof," said one leading media analyst yesterday. A source close to MAI added: "Top club Manchester United only made pounds 2.5m [from TV] last year - about the same BSkyB gets in daily revenues."

BSkyB was still given the edge last night, thanks to its four-year record of broadcasting Premier League matches and its deep pockets. Both MAI and Mirror/Carlton plan to broadcast the matches on cable and satellite.

MAI has secured options on satellite transponders controlled by Nethold, one of Europe's leading pay-TV companies. Mirror/Carlton was believed by industry observers to have failed in repeated attempts to secure satellite capacity in advance of tabling its offer. All three bidders are offering to share excess profits with the clubs.

BSkyB has a controversial right to match any competing offer for the new contract, but lawyers for Mirror/Carlton and MAI have advised that this "pre-emption" clause is unenforceable. However, lawyers for BSkyB claim the clause is binding. The League's top clubs, including Manchester United, are believed to prefer a short-term contract of no more than three years. They want to reserve the right to renegotiate once digital TV is introduced in the UK, providing the scale needed for pay-per-view.

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