The traditional independence of our broadcasters is being traded away as TV companies scramble to strike lucrative deals with top football teams

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The Independent Online
What club do you support? The question we used to ask each other in the school playground will soon be a standard query to direct at Britain's leading broadcasters. Already, in the earliest phase of the digital revolution, TV companies are competing ferociously to strike up lucrative partnerships with the top teams in football.

Staggeringly, the BBC is bidding to run a channel dedicated entirely to Manchester United - a move which will doubtless confirm Conservative conspiracy theories that the Corporation is crawling with reds. Actually, Auntie has pitched herself against BSkyB in this endeavour. But the Premiership champions may reject both suitors and launch their own round-the-clock channel.

Whatever the outcome of that particular boardroom jostle, it is time to stop and ponder where this is taking us. It strikes me that such tie- ups not only promise to expand telly coverage of our national sport, but threaten to shrink severely the extent to which major quoted companies - which is, increasingly, what the big football clubs are - can be scrutinised critically by the media in general.

Make no mistake. The box in the corner of your living room is about to be absolutely revolutionised. Digital technology - with its capacity to carry hundreds, if not thousands, of channels - will put an end to spectrum scarcity, which has severely constrained what television can and cannot do since the invention of the cathode ray tube.

Not that long ago we used to feel mighty grateful for half-hour highlights on Match of the Day. Soon, through the wonders of digital satellite pay- TV, watching the big games live in the comfort of your living room will simply be a matter of swiping your subscription card through TV's version of the turnstiles.

When you consider that Man U is Britain's most popular club with an estimated 3.5 million supporters over 15 years of age in the UK alone, you begin to see why telly bosses are flocking to Old Trafford. The digital revolution could transform the crowd capacity at Old Trafford from just over 55,000 to 55 million - the entire population of the United Kingdom.

Rangers have been quick off the mark, entering into a joint venture with Scottish Television and BSkyB. Together they are already beaming coverage of the Scottish premier champions' away matches back to Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow. But the real purpose of the partnership is to cash in on the new digital channels.

Football clubs have the ball at their feet, in the sense that they not only control the content, they are the content. And content will be king in the multi-channel universe - as the big clubs increasingly realise.

A few weeks ago the Premier League was strongly advised by its media consultants, Oliver & Ohlbaum, to give BSkyB a bodyswerve and set up its own television service when its current deal with Rupert Murdoch's satellite giant expires in 2001. One Premier League chairman told the Financial Times : "The sport realises it's the main driver of television subscriptions and rather than the tail wagging the dog, it should be the other way around."

Murdoch, as ever, is on the ball and determined not to lose possession of a major money-spinner. Realising that the balance of power is shifting rapidly towards the big sports clubs, he has been seeking to purchase one of the most glamorous US baseball teams, the LA Dodgers. The Dirty Digger explained his interest in one tight sentence: "Other media companies in America now have great sports teams."

They sure do. Murdoch's most ferocious adversary Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns the Atlanta Braves. So, it looks like LA Dodgers vs Atlanta Braves duels are to be transformed into a clash of monumental egos - Murdoch vs Turner.

In some ways it is preferable that the link between top-flight sports clubs and major media conglomerates becomes as blatant as this. For, there is something unsettling about mainstream broadcasting organisations forming less transparent alliances with major sports clubs/quoted companies.

As a public service broadcaster, shouldn't the BBC be maintaining an arm's-length relationship with Manchester United and every other league club/quoted company? How can it report neutrally - and, when necessary, expose - that company's affairs when its own resources division is raking in revenue from a commercial partnership?

The Rangers-Scottish Television tie-up is even more unsettling because, as well as owning both of Scotland's major ITV stations, the Scottish Media Group also owns the two big newspapers in Glasgow, the Herald and the Evening Times. Couldn't there come a point not too far down the line when their coverage of Rangers is compromised by their cosy commercial connection with the club?

There is certainly a danger that other, less chummy, newspapers and TV stations will be kept in the dark and denied the big personality interviews and other forms of media access they require to keep their sports pages and sports programmes competitive.

So what, it's only a game, isn't it? No, for once I'm in almost total agreement with the late Liverpool boss Bill Shankly, who said that football isn't a matter of life and death - it's much more important than that.

The importance of the alliances currently being struck between top-flight football clubs and major media conglomerates is that they represent the thin end of what will be a very thick wedge. The traditional independence of our broadcasting organisations is being traded away in the sporting sphere and that sell-out will, assuredly, swiftly spread to other areas of commercial and public life. You just watchn

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