Football: Wall-to-wall coverage the price of TV freedom

Match of the Day presents: The OFT v Premier League.
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A CONTEST seemingly of only football and legal interest but with deep significance for all big sports in Britain begins in the Restrictive Practices Court on Tuesday. The winners will be the Premier League, if they retain the right to negotiate television contracts on behalf of all clubs, or the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), who advocate a free-for-all. Victory for the OFT could burst football's present popularity bubble with saturation TV.

The case comes up at a time when the public are beginning to see through the Premier League and the TV hype. They know that the Premiership is an inferior product by comparison with the Italian version. They are questioning players' wage demands and the power of television and they accept that there are too many foreign imports who are indifferent or past their sell- by dates. But the OFT are basing their case on the doubtful notion that there are millions who want to watch more of the same or see their local club on the telly. In spite of his play for Manchester United, even Rupert Murdoch is understood to be searching for fresh fields in anticipation of a downturn in the game's economic spiral.

The OFT are not under any obligation to be concerned about the long-term effects of their bringing the case. Their aim is to break the Premier League's hold on television negotiating rights and see that more broadcasting organisations have the opportunity to report live football. If successful, the OFT would expect the case to stand as the guideline for future challenges to the ruling bodies of other sports, starting with rugby union. Cricket, which has a similar single television contract to that of the Premiership would also have to change, allowing the counties the right to negotiate individually or in groups.

The OFT have got to show that the present Premier League agreement with BSkyB/ BBC is "contrary to public interest". They are not in the business of protecting football itself but believe that the arrangement by which only 60 of the 360 Premiership matches played each season are televised is insufficient to satisfy public demand. Who says so? Not the Premier League clubs who, to varying degrees, are happy with the hand-me-down arrangement which allows them to pick up large amounts of television money whether or not they appear. Not the majority of the population who already think there is too much football on television. No doubt those supporters who want to stay at home and watch their clubs play away or see home games that their clubs may agree to have screened in the event of full houses will be happy. But if left to their own devices will the smaller Premier League clubs be able to make that service provide enough income to compensate for losing the clout of the present arrangement? Unlikely.

Apparently, the OFT would not have serious objections to a group of clubs, or even all of them, making collective agreements with the television companies if they were of more benefit to the public interest than the present system. Obviously, the OFT believe that the likely outcome of this highly expensive three-month court case, a defining moment for all televised sport in Britain, is that they will win, but they would not be surprised if each individual Premiership club renegotiated deals with BSkyB/BBC while benefiting from release from restrictions by also making deals with regional television.

Game, set and as-you-were for Murdoch who would be pleased to set up more pay-per-view club-based networks while negotiating deals for the clubs to appear nationally.

Since BSkyB and the Premier League have not been on the best of terms (BSkyB have long suspected that the league want to set up their own television channel), the idea of negotiating with individual clubs or groups of clubs does not fill them with horror.

The league's chief executive, Peter Leaver, says that while he appreciates that football is not like other industries because it depends on emotional ties, it is still a "brand". The court will have to decide whether it can see a difference between a brand for which the league can claim legitimate responsibility or, as the OFT suggest, a cartel involved in restrictive practices, including the rights of clubs to take part in other competitions, not least a European Super League.

The Premier League will be calling on 46 witnesses from present and past members. Presumably all will express satisfaction, financially at least, with the present arrangement. However, the OFT view is that the court will not be interested in purely football economics but whether the public is being given the opportunity to see as much football as it could.

Suggestions that without a single heavyweight negotiating body the game will become less prosperous will also be refuted by the OFT, who will argue that they have nothing against Premier League clubs redistributing their television income among the less well-off. The idea of the rich supporting the poor for the sake of preserving the game's pyramid system has never been taken seriously in a sport always preoccupied with its apex.