Football: Nationwide to embrace pay-per-view

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED versus Liverpool comes "free" with a Sky subscription tomorrow night but even if it had to be paid for on a pay-per-view basis there would be no shortage of viewers willing to pledge their pounds 5 or pounds 10.

Apart from the two red armies, many neutrals would be willing to pay to see such a heavyweight meeting. But Portsmouth versus Port Vale? Gillingham versus Blackpool? Or Barnet versus Carlisle? How many neutrals would pay for that? How many fans for that matter? The Football League intends to find out. It will see out the old year and welcome in the new with the first step of a new era in which every game could be available, at a price.

While there may be a sense of quiet satisfaction should the Football League beat the Premier League to the distinction of being the first body to show a pay-per-view match in England - and the Premiership also have imminent plans to do so - this is not about one-upmanship but about trying to maintain a three-division professional league outside of the Premiership. Among other innovations being considered by an organisation undergoing radical change is the establishment of a salary cap among its clubs. A common feature in American sport and rugby league, it would be a controversial development even if the idea is to save clubs from themselves.

The pay-per-view experiment would open up with one of the Nationwide League's more attractive fixtures - perhaps Sunderland, who are currently packing them in at the Stadium of Light, or Manchester City, who are even managing to pull in full houses in the Second Division. Possible fixtures could include Manchester City versus Stoke or Sunderland versus Crewe on 28 December, or Bournemouth versus Fulham on 2 January. Once the principle is established and the public's attention grabbed they would then experiment with less seductive dishes - perhaps Grimsby versus Bolton on 6 February or Leyton Orient's visit to Hartlepool on 9 March. The plan is for six or seven pay-per-view matches in total.

The idea, according to Richard Scudamore, the Football League's new chief executive, is to test the water. "No one knows what the market is for this at the moment. We have to find out what is appropriate with regard to the timing of games and the price to be charged."

Scudamore was keen to stress that the fixtures would be additional to those already due to Sky subscribers, and he noted that viewers should remember that there has never been a golden age of regular live televised matches, but that the whole area is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon.

However it would also be naive not to perceive this as the first step towards viewers having to pay more money, more often, to watch football. Scudamore admitted that the next television contract would be likely to involve a variety of methods and broadcasters. It must be questioned how much demand there is for some of these matches. Already the market may be approaching saturation coverage - tomorrow's game is the 15th live match in 12 days. However, niche television is widely believed to be the future of the industry and it is understandable that the Football League, whose clubs are relatively impoverished compared to those in the Premiership, would look at every avenue of raising both the income and the profile of their clubs.

Scudamore's biggest problem may be retaining a spirit of "mutuality" among the Football League's 72 clubs. The big pay-per-view earners, like Sunderland and Manchester City, may take some persuading to share the revenue they generate. "We need to find a formula for payments which is fair and equitable", Scudamore admitted.

The new chief executive's experience of American sports appears to be behind the suggestion of a salary cap, but it may prove difficult to institute without the anti-trust laws which are present in the United States. David Sheepshanks, who will shortly stand down as the Football League's chairman, said: "It is worth study and debate but as the chairman of Ipswich, I for example would not want to see a salary cap tied to turnover, as that would just preserve the gap between the wealthier clubs and others."

During his time as chairman, Sheepshanks has overseen a steady modernisation of the Football League, which will soon be opening new offices in London and Preston and closing down its isolated former bastion in Lytham St Annes. "Keeping a healthy Football League is vital for the future of the game in England," he insisted. He was opposed to the principle of media companies like Sky taking over major teams like Manchester United, and was fearful that the Office of Fair Trading, in the impending inquiry, would outlaw the current practice of imposed collective bargaining among clubs for TV deals.

"It would be a disaster for the structure of football," he warned. "Collective agreements mean there is something of a level playing field. It would be the final nail in the coffin to the hopes of small clubs like Ipswich overcoming the big clubs."