Football: OFT tackle the officials of unfair tirades

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The Independent Online
Warnings that television will one day do for football what Joshua's trumpet did for the walls of Jericho are nothing new but never have the doom scenarios been orchestrated as effectively as they were at the beginning of last week, when some of our leading exponents of eloquent waffle lined up for a football contest likely to last four months.

The venue is the Restrictive Practices Court in Chancery Lane and the teams of QCs engaged therein represent, on the one side, the Office of Fair Trading and, on the other, the Premier League, Sky TV and the British Broadcasting Corporation. The issue at stake is the pounds 745m contract signed in 1996 between the league and the aforesaid television companies.

The OFT are asking the court to declare the deal illegal on the grounds that it denies many consumers the chance to see their teams play live on terrestrial television.

The case will drag in many big names as witnesses as it plods along what is bound to be a slow and tedious trail through the legal arguments, but it is right and proper that such an important topic gets this exhaustive examination, although you would think from the tone of the media coverage thus far that the OFT have a bloody nerve to stick their noses in.

The OFT themselves must be wondering what they've taken on after a salvo of shots saw them go several goals down even before the eminent lawyers ranged against them - the League, Sky and the BBC have each hired a QC at a fee of which Robbie Fowler would be jealous - began their attack.

Prominent in the assault was someone who, perhaps, should be adopting a more impartial stance. But the thought that as Minister for Sport he is an implement of government just as the OFT are would not have occurred to Tony Banks, who roundly condemned their action and said that if clubs had the right to negotiate their own television deals it could jeopardise the future of top-level English football.

Banks was speaking at the launch of the Government's Football Task Force report which, by an uncanny coincidence, took place the day before the case opened and, by an even uncannier coincidence, announced its support of the Premier League's defence of the television deal. David Mellor, chairman of the Task Force, said that a victory for the OFT would be "deplorable".

No one explained whether these views were in any way connected with the report's recommendation that five per cent of the league's television money should go to community projects and the improvement of facilities at amateur and schools level.

Although I belong to those who believe that there isn't a subject in existence to which Banks and Mellor couldn't add a touch of levity, I want to take the Task Force seriously. But this is difficult when they appear to be in cahoots with the very organisation they should be badgering on behalf of the fans. The cause of grass-roots football is admirable but it is a separate argument entirely and their ambitions in that direction shouldn't have to depend on handouts from the league.

The National Lottery was set up precisely for that sort of sports development and billions of pounds of lottery proceeds are lying idle in the Treasury for want of intelligent distribution. The fact that nearly 50 per cent of sports grounds have no changing-rooms and poor pitches is not the fault or the responsibility of the league, neither is the fact that local authorities have sold 10,000 sports grounds over the past 20 years.

It is the Government that the Task Force should be haranguing over these matters, or would they find that inconvenient? As for the Office of Fair Trading, they have a sound point to make and they deserve to get a hearing without this blatant attempt to shout them down. Of course the game can benefit from a wider use of live television coverage.

Some saw doom reflected in the earliest transmissions of the game and only with the most grudging reluctance over the past 30 years or so have the authorities allowed live coverage to reach its present level. Even in 1992 there were only 18 live matches permitted per season.

But since all previous fears about the effect on the game have proved groundless, upon what are these continued suspicions based? Attendances have been on the upsurge during the recent advance of live football coverage. As recently as Wednesday, Fulham had by far their biggest crowd of the season despite their FA Cup-tie with Southampton being live on Sky.

Opening the case for the Premier League on Tuesday, Charles Aldous QC said that ordinary supporters would suffer if there was a free-for-all and that if clubs were allowed to sign individual deals with other broadcasters there would be saturation coverage, with the game being run for the benefit of TV companies. It could fairly be said that at the moment the game is being run for the benefit of one television company and, since the viewing capacity of that particular company is limited, the game does not get the exposure it deserves.

Certainly, the majority of the 92 clubs in the major leagues hardly appear at all and would surely benefit from local coverage. At the moment it takes a high position or a cup run to stimulate interest. Local television coverage would certainly stimulate interest and with it extra income from perimeter advertising and merchandising. The coverage would also give communities the opportunity to support their local clubs.

Representing the BBC, Christopher Carr QC said that Match of the Day would be under threat if they lost exclusive rights to highlights. Why? As long as it is conducted by Desmond Lynam and has such expert analysts as Alan Hansen it will always by the most watchable football programme on television. There is no competition it should fear.

The forthcoming television revolution is going to change our viewing in every way. If the digital age means multi-choice channels, why shouldn't it also bring us multi-choice football?

With every justification, Iwan Thomas questioned the right of Liverpool's Michael Owen to be voted BBC Television Sports Personality of the Year ahead of him. After all, Owen only scored a goal; Thomas won the British, European, World Cup and Commonwealth Games 400 metres events.

But his country got it right last week. The Welsh BBC version, which uses a judging panel instead of viewers' votes, gave their honour to Thomas amid much cheering from the audience of 1,500 in St David's Hall, Cardiff.

At a hugely enjoyable event, which was far warmer and better organised than its London counterpart, the Welsh were given a further opportunity to right a wrong done to one of their sons by the English when the face of Robert Croft appeared to rapturous applause on a giant screen by satellite from Australia.

Cruelly denied a chance on a spinner's wicket in the final Test at Sydney, Croft reckoned he had proved a point or two with his one-day performances for England at the beginning of the week.

Said to be the victim of the tour manager Graham Gooch's displeasure, Croft was on good form in his interview. When the presenter thanked him for getting up at five in the morning to join the programme, Croft said: "I wasn't in bed. I've just left the boys in the bar and I'm on my way back." Gooch, by the way, had returned to England by then.