Talks with Carlton could lead to takeover of Arsenal

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The Independent Online
ARSENAL FOOTBALL Club and Carlton Communications, the television group, yesterday revealed they were in talks which could lead to Carlton bidding for the Premier League side.

In a joint statement released to the Stock Exchange, Arsenal and Carlton said they were talking about ways in which the two companies could work together.

"These talks are too preliminary in nature to assess the probability of any outcome," the statement said. However, it added that Carlton making a bid for Arsenal was "one possible outcome".

News of the talks came just a day after BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's satellite television group, unveiled details of its pounds 623m bid for Manchester United.

Carlton, which controls the London weekday ITV franchise as well as Central Television and Westcountry Television, has been thinking about buying a club for some time. Michael Green, its chairman, is understood to have held talks with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs recently.

Arsenal shares, which are listed on the Ofex fringe market, which matches buyers and sellers of shares, soared in value yesterday, gaining pounds 1,100 to close at pounds 4,000. That values the club at pounds 240m - less than half what BSkyB is offering to pay for Manchester United.

Any deal would require the approval of a majority of Arsenal's four key shareholders who control the majority of the shares between them.

David Dein, the club's deputy chairman, has a 21 per cent stake. Daniel Fiszman and his fellow director Richard Carr have approximately 27 per cent each while Clive Carr, another director, controls another 9 per cent.

Analysts yesterday said they doubted that Arsenal would agree to a full takeover, preferring to offer Carlton a strategic shareholding in the club in return for a cash injection which could be used to finance the building of a new stadium.

David Brooks, a football analyst at Nomura, the Japanese bank, said: "Carlton could offer the finances for a new stadium while also bringing its know-how and network for digital television."

Carlton owns 50 per cent of ONdigital, the digital broadcaster which is planning to launch a 32-channel service later this year.

The news sparked a frenzy of speculation about possible links between other television groups and football clubs. In the City, shares in listed football clubs such as Leeds and Newcastle soared.

Observers said Carlton's interest in Arsenal made sense. "The Carlton move was inevitable. This is the only country in the world that has a sports/broadcasting economy where the broadcasters have not directly invested in the sports," said a cable company insider.

He expected other major television players also to take stakes in football clubs. Granada Television and United News and Media are prime contenders, with Gerry Robinson's Granada being geographically linked to Liverpool and Newcastle United. A Granada spokesman refused to comment on the speculation.

Cable companies are not likely to enter the fray, however. Cable and Wireless Communications boss Graham Wallace is convinced that his company should, in the immediate future, operate only as a carrier of digital television services. Others, such as Telewest, are not big enough players.

Carlton has long been involved in acrimonious disputes with BSkyB over football. It was narrowly defeated by Sky in its own attempt to secure the rights to Premier League football in 1996 and ONdigital, its digital service owned jointly with Granada, is currently wrestling with BSkyB over the price it will pay to carry Premier League.

With the Arsenal bid, the friction between the two companies has been exacerbated. "If Carlton wins a controlling interest in Arsenal," said the cable executive, "it should have the power to keep Arsenal off BSkyB's satellite television, and exploit the club's potential on its own ONdigital terrestrial service."

Sports experts in television believe that some big clubs, like Arsenal, will now be hoping that the Restrictive Practices Court declares the Premier League to be operating as a cartel in selling television rights to football.

This would liberate the best clubs to strike increasingly lucrative sales deals with media companies interested in taking a stake in them.

t Aston Villa last night confirmed that it is also holding talks with "a communications firm" about a possible takeover.

Villa's financial director, Mark Ansell, said: "We have had talks with a communications firm and there is a chance that a deal might be wrapped up in the same way as with Manchester United."

Business, page 17