Trading chiefs to tackle rugby

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THE OFFICE of Fair Trading is considering launching an investigation into rugby amid concern over the way that rights to televise the game and sell tickets are handled.

The investigation is likely to encompass both rugby union and rugby league, which have been heavily commercialised over the past few years following the success of World Cup tournaments and the growth in pay-television coverage.

The director general of Fair Trading, John Bridgeman, himself a keen rugby union fan, is known to be concerned at the lack of competition in the auctioning of television rights.

There is also concern over the granting of exclusive rights to sports agents to sell tickets and hospitality packages forinternational matches and the way merchandise is sold within rugby grounds.

Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB has a stranglehold on the televising of both sports. BSkyB signed an exclusive deal worth pounds 87.5m with the Rugby Football Union in 1996, allowing it to screen all England's home matches at Twickenham, with the exception of World Cup games, for the next five years.

Rugby league's Superleague meanwhile agreed an exclusive pounds 89m, five-year deal with BSkyB in 1995. BSkyB subsequently paid a further pounds 59m to extend the agreement until 2003. There are 12 teams in the Superleague but this will rise to 14 next season.

The OFT is bringing a case through the Restrictive Practices Court against the Football League over its granting of exclusive rights to Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB to televise Premier League matches. Similar action may be taken in respect of rugby.

Mr Murdoch also has the exclusive rights to televise all English club rugby matches following a pounds 7.5m deal signed in 1995.

The agreement with the RFU over Twickenham internationals almost led to England being thrown out of the Five Nations championship by the other countries involved - Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France.

The dispute was settled after England agreed to give the other nations a share of its income from BSkyB.

Earlier this year, the Rugby Football League was ordered by the Restrictive Practices Court to notify the OFT in advance of any exclusive agreements it makes in respect of ticket sales and hotel and travel arrangements for matches.