Murdoch moves on superleague

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH is planning to exploit the multi-billion pound bid to lure England's top clubs into a European football superleague. He has joined forces with Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister and media mogul, a Saudi Arabian prince and a German television magnate to set up a pan-European digital television network which could carry the games on pay-per-view television.

Fininvest, the holding company for Mr Berlusconi's media interests, has confirmed that its subsidiary, Mediaset, is in talks with Mr Murdoch's News Corp and the German Kirch Group aimed at setting up a new Europe- wide television company.

Secrecy continued to surround plans for a superleague - given the codename Operation Gandalf by those involved. But it appears that assurances given by Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool over the future of their European football may be overtaken by events.

Mr Berlusconi's new ties with News Corp provide a firm link between Mr Murdoch and the football deal. The company masterminding the proposed breakaway, Media Partners International, is run by Rodolpho Hecht, a former chairman of Fininvest.

The first plank in a Europe-wide media alliance was laid yesterday when Mr Berlusconi sold a one-third stake in a German sports channel to the German media entrepreneur Leo Kirch.

The $102m (pounds 62m) sale is the first stage in a complex series of manoeuvrings, which is expected to lead to the creation of an alliance between Mr Kirch, Mr Berlusconi, Mr Murdoch and the Saudi Arabian billionaire, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal.

Prince Al Waleed is the owner of a number of television interests, including a family entertainment channel with the singer Michael Jackson. He is also a major shareholder in Euro Disney and owner of the Four Seasons hotel chain.

The next stage of the deal is likely to be the sale of 20 per cent of the Kirch media empire to Mr Murdoch, Mr Berlusconi and Prince Al Waleed for $2bn (pounds 1.2bn). That will include Premiere and DF-1, pay-per-view channels that could be used to broadcast superleague football.

"If Canal Plus [a European cable channel] get on board, then you have the means by which to launch a pan-European operation," said one City media analyst yesterday. "A breakaway superleague would provide the kind of platform it would need to attract viewers in huge numbers."

Trail of secrets, page 6