A magnate's sphere of influence: GREAT BRITAIN

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE winter of 1992, Sky Sports had shown the cricket World Cup exclusively, a contract which was thought to have sold 250,000 dishes. Nevertheless, BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch has a 40 per cent stake, was still struggling to establish itself in Britain. Soon afterwards, Dave Hill, the Australian head of the channel, was heard to describe the order of sporting preferences in Britain as "football, first, second and third" - so it was not surprising that BSkyB should go after the contract to show Premier League football when it came up for grabs that May.

ITV had struck the previous deal, paying £44m for four years of football; this time the stakes would be much higher. Part of the BSkyB bid was £10m of BBC money to show a Match of the Day highlights package and Marmaduke Hussey and Sir Michael Checkland, respectively the chairman and director- general of the BBC, both made calls to Sir John Quinton, chairman of the League, to argue the case for the BSkyB proposal.

When the football club chairmen arrived to decide the League's TV future, however, it was Alan Sugar, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, who was integral to BSkyB's success. As chairman of Amstrad, suppliers of satellite dishes, it was in his interest to see the contract go the satellite channel. When Sugar and the other chairmen arrived at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, in London, they were handed copies of the new ITV bid which had been raised to £262m.

According to Trevor East, ITV's executive football producer, Sugar immediately called BSkyB telling them to raise their bid. When East later discovered that ITV had lost the contract, he said he had heard Sugar saying: "Get something down here quickly to blow them out of the water." The BSkyB bid, it transpired, was raised to £304m; the contract was won.

Reaction to Premier League football going to the satellite channel was not positive. "Absolutely appalling," said Bryan Davies, the Labour MP, who organises the parliamentary football team. "It's the most ludicrous and backward decision football has taken," said Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager.

How dated the above comments now appear. The contract proved a watershed deal for BSkyB, giving the channel a credibility it had previously failed to achieve. Initially, satellite dishes did not sell at the expected rate. However, by the end of the season, BSkyB were publishing figures which showed a profit rise of over 70 per cent.