TV challenge `could destroy football'

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ENGLISH FOOTBALL'S Premier League faces destruction and the community fabric of the country's national game will be torn apart if the League loses its landmark court case against the Office of Fair Trading, a court was told yesterday.

In opening statements at the restrictive practices court in central London, the OFT challenged the right of the League's 20 clubs, which range from giants such as Manchester United and Arsenal to less prominent teams such as Charlton and Wimbledon, to negotiate television deals collectively. At present, the League controls all rights, sales and overseas distribution of television income among its clubs. The current television deals to screen live league games and highlights - with Sky Television and the BBC, the League's two co-defendants in the case - are worth pounds 743m over four years.

The OFT maintains that these deals are against the public interest, that clubs should make individual, not collective, television deals, and that the public should be given a broader choice of channels on which they can watch Premier League football. The OFT central argument against the current position is that the League is operating as a cartel, which is stifling innovation and leading to high prices.

The hearing will cost the parties involved up to pounds 30m over its expected four-month duration.

The outcome will be decided by a judge, Mr Justice Ferris, and two lay officials.

Charles Aldous QC, representing the League, opened proceedings yesterday saying it was his client's right, as the governing body, to control centrally the sale of television rights. The League, he said, is controlled by its member clubs and acts in their interest. Should that right to act collectively on behalf of the clubs be removed, Mr Aldous added, equality of wealth distribution, both within the League and to the wider football family, would be threatened.

At present, Mr Aldous said, the Premier League gives some pounds 17.5m a year to football clubs and causes outside its jurisdiction. It announced on Monday that it intends to increase that figure to up to pounds 50m a year when its next television contracts are agreed before 2001. Should the OFT win, he added, not only would that funding be threatened, but Premier League clubs would be selected for takeovers by broadcasting companies pursuing business rather than sporting agendas.

Mr Aldous said that could lead to the break-up of the Premier League and hasten the formation of a breakaway European Superleague including only the most powerful clubs.

Jonathan Sumption QC, setting out Sky's position as a co-defendant, said the company would argue that it is legitimate and desirable for a single broadcaster to have, for a limited time, exclusive rights to screen sports events, as long as such rights were regularly renegotiated and sold in a fair and open manner. Mr Sumption added that Sky is not alone in signing exclusive rights for live football. Manchester United, for example, will appear more times on ITV in the European Champions League this season than on Sky.

Christopher Carr QC, representing the BBC, said the corporation was currently able to make a comprehensive highlights programme such as Match of the Day only because the League sells rights collectively, and said it will argue that the current contracts are in the public interest.

The case continues today when the OFT will outline the main arguments of its case.