More than 30 Football League clubs were facing financial ruin last night after the owners of ITV Digital gave up their fight to save the stricken broadcaster and put it up for sale.
The move means the Football League, which was owed £180m by ITV Digital under a deal to screen matches, could now end up with nothing. The league, led by its chief executive, David Burns, refused an offer of £74m to settle the contract.
The clubs will join a long list of creditors or rely on suing Carlton and Granada, ITV Digital's owners, a process that would take years. Dozens of the most financially vulnerable, which were relying on television money to cover their expenses this year and next, are now threatened with going bust.
ITV Digital, which was put into administration last month, will be sold on a debt-free basis to any interested parties, which means that a buyer would not be responsible for honouring the Football League's contract. Carlton and Granada, the two main ITV companies, will have sunk nearly £1bn into the doomed venture by the time it is sold – or closed down if there are no buyers. For the moment, the service will continue to broadcast to its 1.2 million subscribers. As well as the league, a rescue deal for ITV Digital needed other suppliers, including the BBC and Sky, to reduce costs drastically.
Nick Dargan, the administrator from Deloitte & Touche, said: "We are now in discussions with the Independent Television Commission about an accelerated process leading to a sale as a going concern. We expect to make an announcement about the process on Thursday."
ITV Digital's main asset, its broadcast licence, will now be offered to buyers, in an auction overseen by the ITC, the regulator.