THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL: Too big for its boots

A court decision this week could inject millions more into the Premier League but the fear is that only top clubs may benefit
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t was once said that, just as the Church of England represented the Conservative Party at prayer, so the Labour Party could be found worshipping on the terraces of British football grounds on a Saturday afternoon. Of course, standing-room-only areas have since been overrun with seating, and more than the odd middle-class vowel has crept into the roar. But the game's socialist principals still run deep judging by the equitable way in which football's vital television revenue is divided up between the clubs.

When BSkyB won the current contract to broadcast live football in 1992, it negotiated with the Premier League which acted on behalf of all 20 clubs in the top division and the pounds 670m it agreed to pay is shared fairly evenly among the clubs. Although the star attractions like Manchester United and Arsenal are short-changed under these arrangements - they would pocket far more by dealing individually - they realise that subsidising lesser sides ensures the survival of their competition.

This collectivist spirit, which has helped otherwise unviable clubs to survive, is now under threat in the name of consumer choice. This week the little-known Restrictive Practices Court (RPC) will decide whether to uphold a complaint from John Bridgeman, the indomitable director-general of Fair Trading, about the way football sells its television rights.

Since BSkyB started broadcasting live Premier League games, television coverage of football has swollen to satisfy even the most gluttonous fan - Sky channels showed 273 live games from around the globe last season. Viewers are subjected to a bewildering range of camera angles and sound effects as well as Sky Sports' endless stream of idiosyncratic, some would say idiotic, statistics.

Yet Bridgeman believes that BSkyB's contract has limited choice, because Sky Sports televises just 60 Premier League games each season, meaning that barely 15 per cent of the fixture list can be viewed as it happens. The director-general also thinks that the price - Sky Sports viewers pay a minimum of about pounds 25 a month to watch - is too high.

But Sky's coverage will look like a model of moderation and understatement should Bridgeman have his way. f the Premier League is barred from selling its rights collectively, analysts predict a free-for-all with a clutch of media companies jockeying to snap up the rights to show one or other of the top clubs in action. To justify spending at least pounds 40m a year tying up just Manchester United's games, for example, television companies would need to broadcast all their matches, garnished with even lengthier studio analysis and highlights packages.

The winners would be the other television companies who have been excluded by BSkyB's monopoly. But these companies are in the minority when it comes to support for Bridgeman. BSkyB, whose revenue is heavily dependent on the allure of live football, naturally defends the status quo. The BBC, which paid about pounds 73m to show Saturday-night highlights as part of BSkyB's deal, is also opposed to Bridgeman. A weekly audience of 6 million is testimony to Match of the Day's success and the corporation believes that the programme's quality would be undermined if it no longer had exclusive right to show match highlights.

To their credit, even the biggest clubs with most to gain from the death of collective negotiating have given evidence to the RPC in favour of current arrangements. Manchester United, for example, could probably quadruple the pounds 10m it receives each year but nevertheless remains committed to the party line. Even the example of Barcelona, the giant Catalan club that negotiated a pounds 40m annual deal with a television company, has failed to undermine United's solidarity. More understandable is the opposition of clubs more accustomed to fending off relegation at the bottom of the Premier League.

Nick Batram, an analyst at the City stockbroker Greig Middleton, says: "The lower clubs in the top division get about pounds 6.5m a year now, but would anyone want to pay Southampton that much for the right to show just their games?"

n any case, the more top clubs cash in, the greater the likelihood that the money will be spent on yet bigger transfer fees and wages for players. Even if clubs such as Southampton can find somebody to broadcast their games, they may find themselves unable to afford even the most mediocre signings.

There is also concern among active supporters - those who actually attend games - who are fearful of the glut of televised football. Given the willingness of many armchair fans to watch football whoever is playing, media groups that have bought rights will not want their matches to clash with games broadcast on other channels. There is every chance that the greediest fans will be able to watch live football every night, a prospect which concerns Alison Pilling, who chairs the Football Supporters' Association. "f games are on every night, it will undermine football attendances," she says. "The evidence shows that gates are already down on nights when there is a live game on television."

The Football Trust, which has responsibility for the welfare of all levels of the game, is also concerned. Before Bridgeman's intervention, the trust had been promised 5 per cent of the value of the next television deal to distribute to the grassroots of the game. Philip French, its spokesman, estimates this could have generated pounds 50m for the parts of the game most in need of cash, but the donation is now in jeopardy.

John Bridgeman remains steadfast in the face of his critics and the Office of Fair Trading has never lost a case referred to the RPC. At the very least, the court is likely to loosen Sky's stranglehold on live games, allowing other broadcasters to show many of the remaining 300 fixtures. Couch potatoes will celebrate, but their euphoria may fade if the gap between football's haves and have-nots finally becomes unbridgeable.

BUSNESS, P1: SKY SET TO LOSE GRP

WHAT THE FANS SAY

We must keep the dreams alive on the terraces

DAVE WOODHALL

Editor of Heroes and Villains, the Aston Villa fanzine

BSkyB has created some of the worst indignities ever perpetrated on the football supporter. The inconvenience of their fixture changes is legendary. Andy Gray and his technological wizardry might explain things to the armchair fan but what's football without the endless debate?

So the OFT case is a golden opportunity to rid the game of this scourge? Not really. Because, for all their faults, TV companies currently have to make a decent fist of sharing their money round. f Premiership clubs were allowed to negotiate their own deals, most of Sky's money would end up in the pockets of two or three clubs. For decades us sophisticates in England have scorned the Scottish league because if Rangers don't win it then Celtic will. We're not laughing quite so loud now.

Too many people already see football as a game show, invented in 1992 for television. And, like all game shows, all television programmes, the unthinking masses want familiarity. f Cup draws mean we might have to watch teams we've never heard of, let's concentrate on the leagues. You know where you are at Old Trafford. All very nice, all very neat.

The beauty of the game is that, once the match starts, anything can happen. Take the element of chance out and you're left with certainties. Handy if you're watching at home. Not too pleasant if you turn up week after week, paying your money to keep your club alive and dreaming of the day when the FA Cup brings the league champions to your ground. A full house, home advantage and anything can happen.

The dream's still alive, just about. But it's getting fainter by the year. The current set-up may not be perfect, but it's the best we can hope for.

ROBERT NCHOLS

Editor of Fly Me to the Moon, the Middlesbrough fanzine

t's not that most football followers are keen supporters of the overpriced hype machine that is the Premier League, but you have to fear the anarchy that could follow a judgement against the present deal. The fat cats would get fatter tying up their exclusive deals to cable and satellite providers. Fixtures would all be ratings related, the pressure would be for Man United to play Barcelona, Arsenal to play Juventus. The FA Cup, the Premier League, the Football League would struggle. What chance would a local, none plc club like Middlesbrough have to compete? Even the miserly sums that at present trickle down to the third division could dry up. The door would be open for the flash marketing moguls to usher in a Euro or even world league that no fan in this country seems to want (just look at the paltry attendances and viewing figures for run-of-the-mill European games). That's when the real Monopoly game will begin.

MARTYN McFADDEN

Editor of A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine

Received wisdom suggests that Sky is "a bad thing", yet there is no denying that its presentation is crisp and their coverage insightful. What they do, they do very well. Even pay-per-view solves problems for the fan that can't get to that away game or can no longer afford to go to every match.

But the ease of access to top-quality football provided by satellite TV has starved smaller clubs of an audience and the subsequent slimming- down of professional leagues removes a safety net for players.

Whatever your stance, and am not a fan of Sky, one thing is clear. Televised football will never be the same again.

MKE TCHER

Associate editor of the fanzine When Saturday Comes

A victory for the OFT is superficially attractive because it would threaten Sky's dominance of the TV market. However, the results would be disastrous not only for the smaller clubs in the Premier League. Even the largest would regret it if the league became so hopelessly uncompetitive that fans lost interest. What's more, the successful marketing of the Premier League has been a key factor in fuelling football's boom. With TV coverage splintered, that benefit to all its member clubs would be lost.

The impact would also be felt lower down, since the Nationwide League's collective deals would presumably be open to a similar challenge. Such a result could only hasten the transformation of the First Division into "Premiership Two", putting even greater obstacles in the way of the small clubs beneath. The static and lop-sided league an OFT victory would create is in nobody's interests.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE BG CLUBS: THE OPTONS

REPLAY

The OFT's complaint is rejected

n BSkyB's existing deal with the Premier League continues until 2001.

n Other media companies, possibly including Carlton and Lord Hollick's United News & Media, compete with BSkyB for future rights.

n The sale generates at least pounds 1bn for football.

n The Premier League considers maximising its revenue by setting up its own television channel to show matches.

SHOOT-OUT

Clubs are told to negotiate individually

n Top sides sell their rights to media groups for at least pounds 40m a year.

n Fans of Arsenal, for instance, are able to see all their games live.

n Smaller clubs have more difficulty finding anyone willing to show their matches.

n Wages and transfer fees are pushed even higher as top clubs multiply their revenue. Smaller clubs struggle to compete.

HOME WN

Clubs set up their own channels

n Manchester United already has MUTV, which has been showing matches from its Australian tour; the club broadcasts some of its home games on the channel.

n Other clubs set up similar channels. Middlesbrough already has.

n Big games continue to appear on established channels, because the dedicated club channels have limited local audiences.

AWAY GOALS

Top clubs break away to form a European super-league

n With the Premier League's power curbed, English teams break away from the domestic league.

n The likes of United, Arsenal and Chelsea revive previous efforts to set up a league consisting of Europe's top teams.

n Viewers are treated to regular clashes between the cream of British and European football.

n Smaller clubs are left to make ends meet in a diminished domestic league.

SCORE-DRAW

The OFT and Premier League reach a compromise

n The Premier League continues to sell a chunk of games to one television company.

n The RPC insists that other television companies are allowed to show selected live games, breaking BSkyB's monopoly on live coverage and opening up far more choice for viewers.

n The most successful clubs top up their income by selling the rest of their games; the smaller clubs continue to be provided for.

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