Media: Pay up, pay up and play the game

The battle for the broadcasting rights to football is in full pitch. Jonathan Miller considers the strategies of the two opposing sides

In the grim Chancery Lane hearing room where the future of football broadcasting in England is currently being adjudged, the game is in roughly its 127th hour, with perhaps 300 hours left to play. The learned friends are in 4-7-3 formation (four junior barristers, seven QCs and three judges), and the spectator gallery has (except for your correspondent) emptied.

Chichester Rents is not one of your period courtrooms with red judges and resonating oratory but a large, low-ceilinged, open-plan office floor stocked with grotty civil- service furniture. The room is stacked to the ceiling with bundles and wired up for computers. The venue is usually used for complex fraud cases. The three judges preside from a small, unprepossessing dais. There are no wigs or gowns. It is all conducted in the dignity of fluorescent lighting.

Within this unpromising arena, the legal teams (players from all sides wearing a near-identical team strip of various subtle shades of grey and pinstripe) and a supporting cast of solicitors, locum economists, assorted experts and spin doctors, are playing for very high stakes. The case essentially concentrates on whether football clubs should strike television rights deals individually or be allowed to negotiate collectively, as they do now, under the umbrella of the Premier League (the current four-year deal between Sky/BBC and the League is worth pounds 743m).

So far, the three judges (Mr Justice Ferris, deputy high court judge, the man with the whistle flanked by two lay assessors in the role of assistant referees) have heard 40 witnesses, all of them called by the Premier League. The enormous witness list, including such luminaries as Ken Bates, the Chelsea Chairman, and David Dein, the boss at Arsenal, has been a big show of force by the league. Occasionally, there is a headline, such as: "Bates dismisses claims from 'couch potato' fans that it is too expensive to attend games."

More often, the league, which has the burden of showing that its conduct is in the public interest, has played a traditional England strategy, kicking arguments up the field and hoping that some of them will get through.

They are defending a tidy little arrangement in which, if the OFT prevails, the Premier League has the most to lose and in which the fans, currently limited to a strict ration of television determined by the cartel, have the most to gain.

The case of John Bridgeman, the director-general of fair trading, versus the arraigned giants of the football and broadcasting establishments, is important to the future of both television and football. The significance of the case is greater because it comes as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is separately considering BSkyB's offer to buy Manchester United Football Club, the biggest team in the league. The MMC report is due on 12 March.

Bridgeman, a Welsh-born former aluminium company executive whose academic training at University College Swansea was in chemistry, not economics has never the less proved a tenacious opponent. Since his appointment to a five-year term as director-general in 1995, he picked up on an open OFT investigation of the Premier League that began in 1992, at the time of the original deal with Murdoch and the BBC. "Any other business acting in this way would be subject to competition law and I see no reason why the selling of sports coverage should be any different," he said after taking office. A brave position: football is free with abuse and Bridgeman has become its bete noire.

Mr Bridgeman's case is that the League and the Broadcasters are acting as a cartel responsible for inflating costs and prices. The result has been to put BSkyB in a dominant position in the supply of sports channels in the UK, and to inhibit competition in the pay-TV market in which premium sports programming is the main driver. The result, for the fans, is that many find it impossible to get a ticket to a sold-out stadium. Nor are they able to follow their team regularly on television. Only 60 of the 380 Premiership games are broadcast live on BSkyB; the highlights of only three games are available to the BBC's Match of the Day.

In fact, there are cameras recording the action at all of the Premiership grounds; it is simply that viewers are not allowed to watch. Instead, while Britain's top grounds are 94 per cent sold out on a typical Saturday and with waiting lists of years for tickets, most fans are reduced to watching Sky Sports Centre, in which sports journalists and superannuated footballers watch games on closed-circuit, and describe them to viewers who are not allowed to see for themselves.

The Premier League's case is that this is good for us and that there is no scope for variation. It is their claim that any more football would destabilise the competition of the Premiership, forcing weak teams to the wall and strengthening the top teams to the extent that they could not be challenged. Only through the collective selling of rights, and benevolent distribution of the proceeds by the league itself, the league insists, can the clubs and sporting competition be sustained.

The stakes are high and, with the advent of digital television, likely to grow dramatically greater. Of the current four-year, pounds 743m contract, BSkyB pays pounds 670m for the right to broadcast 60 games live with some highlights, and the BBC pays pounds 73m for the right to broadcast highlights. This arrangement appears to suit BSkyB, the BBC, and the Premier League rather well. Bridgeman's case is that more games could be shown on more platforms by more broadcasters. He argues that there could be both more regional choice and, in particular, that games could be made available on a pay-per-view basis to fans who would otherwise have no opportunity to see their team - in effect, an additional, electronic, digital, TV turnstile at every Premier ground.

Once in a while, reporters show up: last week, to record the cameo of David Mellor, BBC Radio Five Live sports presenter and head of the Football Task Force, to which job he was appointed by his fellow Chelsea supporter, Tony Banks, the New Labour Sports Minister. Mellor spoke not as chairman of the Task Force, a quango which claims to represent the interests of fans, but merely as the holder of a pounds 2,500 executive season ticket at Chelsea. "I have my own views, but not out of line with fans' opinions," he said.

Mellor's performance got good headlines. He affected exasperation at the impertinence of the Office of Fair Trading. He told the OFT's lead QC, Geoffrey Vos, that critics of the current arrangements "didn't know what they're talking about". The notion that income from television rights could be otherwise distributed was "a presentational refuge point you've taken which is not convincing". Other arguments, though, may finally prove more persuasive.

Over the next few weeks, the Court is to hear witnesses called by BSkyB and the BBC, as well as expert witnesses called by the OFT. Dependent on the results of the MMC inquiry into BSkyB, the parallel OFT case could see a changed geometry. Among the significant forthcoming witnesses could be Michael Grade, a Charlton Athletic fan but also a professional broadcaster who knows what it is like to be cut out of a cosy cartel. This could be Grade's chance to play a blinder, with an imaginative, argumentative dribble to the mouth of the goal. He could find himself winning the cheers of the crowd, even Arsenal fans, if he could offer a way to let more supporters get a look in.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Digital Project Manager / Web Project Manager

£45-50k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced ...

Account Manager

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager to join ...

Social Advertising Manager / Social Media Manager

£Excellent + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Social Advertising Manager / Social Med...

Web Developer / Front End Web Developer

£30 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Front End Web Developer (PHP ...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment