Football: Premier League ready to fight OFT

UP TO 10 of the country's leading clubs, including Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, could break away and form a domestic super league if the Premier League loses its court case with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that starts in January, a League spokesman said yesterday.

The OFT is bringing legal action against the Premier League, BSkyB and the BBC to bring an end to the collective bargaining for television deals by top-flight clubs. If the OFT wins its case - which will cost the Premier League pounds 7.5m of an estimated pounds 30m total cost to all parties - individual clubs will be able to negotiate their own deals with whichever broadcasters offer the most money. The clubs currently do deals and split revenues collectively.

Mike Lee, a League spokesman, said if clubs were forced to make separate television deals it could "fatally undermine" the competitive nature of the Premiership by creating an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor. Fixture chaos, the establishment of mini-cartels among clubs led by television companies and a lack of investment in the rest of the game could also follow, he said.

The OFT insists it is acting to defend the rights of consumers, arguing that the Premier League artificially inflates the cost of football and restricts fans' access to watching live games on television.

Lee said his greatest fear is that the country's richest clubs would set up their own television stations, offer home games to viewers on pay- per-view and forever end the principle at the heart of the English league system - that smaller clubs can aspire to the top of the game.

Of the prospect of a breakaway group going it alone if the case went against them, the League admitted: "We can't rule it out."

Some of the country's biggest clubs are in a no-lose situation, guaranteed healthy television incomes if the League wins and even healthier incomes if the OFT wins. Lee said, however, that all 20 clubs support the League's position.

An OFT spokeswoman played down fears of football being thrown into crisis should the League lose the case. "Dire warnings about the consequences of breaking up a cartel are not new," she said.