Football: Profits and power are the new goal

Football: BSkyB's controversial takeover of Manchester United takes the game into a new era, but at what cost?
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THE RETURN of Dream Team, BSkyB's football soap about the mythical Harchester United, has now been thoroughly usurped. Why bother making programmes about fictional clubs when you can own the real thing?

The surprise about Murdochester United plc, however, a dream-team collaboration between the world's biggest media mogul and football's biggest club, is that no-one saw it coming. It is the inevitable consequence of the sport's mutually dependent, financially lucrative relationship with television.

Money has always talked in football. The first champions, Preston, Everton, Sunderland and Aston Villa, pioneered professionalism and contained a significant number of well-renumerated Scottish imports. Now, however, it is so loud that little else can be heard above the sound of dollars being counted - and how telling that the deal was formally announced in an American accent, that of Mark Booth, BSkyB's chief executive. Booth, incidentally, dismissed as irrelevant the question as to whether Rupert Murdoch had ever been to Old Trafford. For most fans that is the most important question of all.

The deal means the wealth gap that was opened in 1985, when big clubs benefited from being allowed to keep gate receipts from home matches, is now unbridgeable.

The consequence is a diminution of the game's uncertainty, one of its greatest attractions. If the prospect of another club rising through the ranks like Wimbledon already appeared unlikely, the thought of United even sinking as far as Manchester City have done is now inconceivable.

Of course, the takeover must be referred to the Office of Fair Trading but even if the Government had the political will to stop it - which seems unlikely given previous kow-towing to Murdoch - it is hard to see upon what grounds.

Nor are the supporters likely to stop it. The core support, the locally- born, fortnightly attenders, who first went to Old Trafford with their fathers, may be against it, but the mass of United's fans are less sure. Many will see the deal as a chance to make Manchester United Europe's best performer on the pitch as well as on the balance sheet. Already, the head of the Australian supporters' club has heralded the deal. It would mean, he hoped, a chance to see every United match live in the comfort of his own home.

For this is the modern Manchester United. They are a global brand, championed in St Ives as well as Salford, Faridabad as well as Farnworth.

Their fathers supported the local team, or knew nothing of a far-away team in red. For fans who see Manchester United as their personal thread in the fabric of English football this looks a bad deal; for those who regard them as a source of reflected glory it is a good one.

Certainly, Manchester United ought now to be even more pre-eminent, at least until other clubs are bought up by multi-nationals. No longer should they have to baulk at either high transfer fees or wage demands.

Yet they may still do so. Alex Ferguson, more than most, knows that teams win titles, not individuals. Having a collection of highly paid stars is no guarantee of success and United are likely to improve the team by increments rather than with a splurge. That is assuming Ferguson is left to manage in peace. If not, this instinctive socialist may walk.

Ferguson has been careful to limit his comments to praising BSkyB's football coverage, a feature few football folk would disagree with. His views on the deal are unknown, but one question he might ask would be "Why?" As Alex Fynn, the football analyst and author, said yesterday: "United already have a far greater turnover than the likes of Juventus. That they are not pulling their financial weight is due to the innate conservatism of the board, rather than a lack of money."

Fynn expects that to change but is concerned about the sting in the deal. This could mean putting BSkyB's television interests ahead of those of the club and the game. Though Martin Edwards, United's chief executive, said the club would be allowed to take its own view in television negotiations, Murdoch's track record suggests such promises of independence are worthless. Besides, Murdoch has not bought United for its profitability alone. This deal is about influence and control; it will accelerate the European league and cement BSkyB's role in its coverage.

Such an investment increases the likelihood that the European league will effectively be a closed shop. While promotion and relegation are imperative to traditional fans, newer and younger ones may accept this more easily than is thought. While Britain is too small to support a franchise- based superleague in the manner of American football's NFL, Europe is big enough and wealthy enough.

When the bulk of the income is through television viewers on pay-per- view, a club's location, and local support, matters less. This is not so far-fetched. Juventus have already played European matches away from Turin. The time may come when everybody supports two teams; the local one they watch in the flesh on a Saturday afternoon and the European one they follow through the cathode-ray tube on a Sunday night. In time, the superclubs may even become ersatz national teams.

This is football, Jim, but not as we knew it. There has always been change in the game but it has usually crept up on us. This week, like the lifting of the maximum wage, the first Sky TV deal and the Bosman ruling, will come to be seen as a landmark.