Football: Pay TV set to start this season

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The Independent Online
PAY-PER-VIEW television coverage will be introduced this season but not for championship-deciding games.

Vic Wakeling, the newly appointed head of Sky's sports division, yesterday revealed that he expected PPV "to happen this season but not this year." But he pledged that for the duration of the present contract "a Manchester United-Arsenal, a title decider, would never be on pay-per-view. We couldn't do that to our subscribers. A pay-per-view game will be on top of our normal coverage."

Wakeling denied Sky were worried about being sued by subscribers but said it was not worth the "piss-off factor" to make them pay for premium matches. However, PPV could involve a relegation battle, a match featuring a mid-table team with strong support such as Middlesbrough or Newcastle, a cup replay, or an away European tie. At present it would be a match which would be sold out.

"We are talking to more than one administrative body and it will come in one shape or another," added Wakeling, presumably referring to the FA, the FA Premier League, the Nationwide League and Uefa.

Sky still have to see off a court challenge from the Office of Fair Trading over the legality of the current exclusive deal but they are confident that by the time the legal processes are finished the five-year contract - which begins its third season on Sunday - will be near completion. However, Wakeling added: "If we lose the case - and we are in with the BBC in this - the prospects are terrifying for football. The top half dozen clubs will be picked up and the rest will have to take the crumbs."

Wakeling, who has been on a summer fact-finding mission in the United States, also said that improvements would soon be made to Sky's coverage including new camera angles, enabling viewers, if they so desire, to watch the entire match from behind the goal. Widescreen TV is on the cards as is more immediate use of the channel's virtual reality technique, which may ultimately be quick enough to use to examine lbw appeals in cricket.

PPV has not, however, been a success where it has been introduced elsewhere in Europe such as France or Italy but industry insiders believe that the difference in England is that the game is buoyant and the principle of paying for television on subscription is already established. Sky's best take-up so far for boxing has been 650,000 homes for Frank Bruno versus Mike Tyson but it is accepted that that was a special case. However, the company's market penetration has since increased and there are also a substantial number of potential viewers who watch in pubs and clubs.

Sky's success in promoting their product through the coverage of live television sport has since been copied by cable television companies and Channel 5 and it is anticipated that live sport, especially football, will remain a major factor in retaining existing viewers and reaching new customers for the ever-expanding range of television channels. Financially, this can only benefit the game though there is still much uncertainty over whether the distribution of spoils will be to football's long-term benefit.

Premiership preview, pages 22 and 23