Football OFT investigation: When sharing the spoils works for common good

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The Independent Online
SUNDAY'S NFL play-off victory by the Dallas Cowboys will have been accompanied by the customary sound of ringing tills yesterday, as supporters celebrated by indulging in America's other national pastime of going shopping.

The Cowboys' success will have further increased their dominant market share but, however many coffee mugs and pennants they sell, they will not make a cent more than an unheralded team like the Indianapolis Colts. Neither will "America's team" derive commensurate benefit from their attractiveness to television and radio, nor from Sunday's customary full-house.

This is because the NFL, the national sport of the world's most capitalist country, is a socialist organisation. Virtually all income, from the sale of media rights and merchandise to gate receipts, is shared 30 ways. This, plus the draft and the salary cap - which spreads the available talent across the NFL - means every team has a chance every year, as this year's surge to the "semi-finals" by the once-hapless New York Jets underlines.

Whereas most US companies are trying to wipe out their rivals, NFL clubs and the American government recognise that sport is different: without competition it cannot exist.

As today's court case between the Office of Fair Trading and the Premier League illustrates, this logic has not made much of an impact in Europe, with the result that only a handful of teams start the season with a realistic chance of winning their respective titles. But, while the Premier League allows clubs to keep their own merchandise and gate income, and largely ignores the impoverished Nationwide League clubs, it does at least ensure some division of the spoils by collectively negotiating television income. This has enabled clubs like Derby and Leicester to establish themselves in the Premiership, and challenge for the minor honours and places in Europe. Should the OFT win this case, such ambitions will be in jeopardy.

The big clubs cannot lose, whatever the result of this case. The likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are already dominant and this will merely increase their power. BSkyB cannot lose either: if the Premier League wins, the satellite company will retain a monopoly on live coverage (and probably the lion's share of any future deal); if the OFT wins, BSkyB can concentrate on screening Manchester United, assuming their takeover goes through.

Everyone else, especially the bulk of supporters, will lose. They may be able to watch their clubs more often but, unless they support one of the giants, there will be less reason to do so. It would also lead to an acceleration in the development of pay-per-view TV and a European league.

If the government is serious about keeping the "people's game" for the people, it should introduce legislation enshrining the clubs' right to negotiate collectively instead of allowing the OFT to challenge it. In return, the game should be forced to surrender 20 per cent of that income for grass-roots development.

Just as the best teams work together for the common good, so should the game.