David Conn: Brussels forced to bide its time as Premiership TV deal stays intact

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The Independent Football

One of the most gruelling, senseless, expensive, impenetrable and potentially destructive exercises in sport is finally coming to an end - the challenge waged by the European Commission against the Premier League's television deal, which could have ruined English football.

One of the most gruelling, senseless, expensive, impenetrable and potentially destructive exercises in sport is finally coming to an end - the challenge waged by the European Commission against the Premier League's television deal, which could have ruined English football.

There are many critics of the Premiership's greed and overkill, and the fact that it began life in 1992 as a breakaway from sharing television money with the 70 other Football League clubs, but almost nobody involved in football supported the campaign from Brussels to break up "collective selling" of TV rights, which would have led to yet more financial dominance by a few big clubs.

Even the clubs themselves opposed it; the principle has always underpinned English football, and all meaningful competition, that a league sells its matches to television, then distributes the money as it sees fit.

In the Premiership, half is shared equally among all clubs, a quarter in "merit payments" according to where clubs finish at the end of the season, and a quarter in "facility fees" paid out to clubs featured in live matches.

The system rewards the already successful, and, as gate money, sponsorship and European Champions' League revenue is not shared at all, the Premier League has become dominated by Manchester United, Arsenal and now, with Roman Abramovich's backing, Chelsea.

However, the distribution of TV revenue provides at least some basis on which the smaller Premier League clubs can compete against the rich. Arsenal, who won the Premiership last season, were paid £32,753,692 from TV, while Wolves, who finished bottom, were paid around 40 per cent of that figure, £13,448,000.

Campaigners have always argued there should be more sharing - within the Premiership to stimulate competitiveness, and within the rest of football down to the grass roots - but the EC, attacking collective selling itself, was demanding that clubs sell TV rights individually, which would lead to huge deals for the big clubs, and all the others struggling.

Anybody puzzling how Malcolm Glazer, the US businessman, intends to make money if he ever gets hold of Manchester United, need look no further; if he can break United away from the Premiership's collective deal and sell their own matches, he could hit the jackpot. So the EC was seeking to carve up the remnants of football's solidarity, in a way which would enrich financial opportunists.

The EC's competition commissioner, Mario Monti, began his challenge as long ago as June 2001. His target was really BSkyB's dominant position in pay television, gained through securing Premiership rights, but his tactic was to demand that clubs sell their rights individually and all matches be televised live. This, the EC said, would be in the interests of "consumers", although there are very few consumers to be found believing television has too little of football and should be allowed to shuffle kick-off times even more.

All the Premier League clubs rallied to defend collective selling - except, at first, Manchester United, who had the most to gain from a break-up, and sat back to see what would happen. United were met with such fury from the 19 other clubs that they did eventually support the Premiership's case, and now, after the trauma of Glazer's takeover bid, United's board, led by the chief executive, David Gill, have stated their resolute commitment to collective selling.

The Football League, Football Association and all football bodies, including supporters' groups, lined up against the challenge. The Government, too, supported the Premier League and the principle of collective selling, although too gingerly for some tastes - the European Union is so religiously devoted to free trade that the British Government has a policy of not intervening in issues seen to be the province of competition authorities.

"We gave advice and made our feelings known," said a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, "but we could not become involved directly."

The Premier League set sail with an army of lawyers to defend its status; Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain have moved to individual selling, leading to an unbridgeable inequality between the top clubs and the rest, and English football is determined not to be sent the same way.

Last May, a delegation went to see Monti, including Football Supporters' Federation representatives, Labour MPs Andy Burnham and James Purnell, and Alan Keen, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group, to argue that the commission should use its powers to increase sharing of money, not to carve football up.

Before 1992, the Football League used to distribute TV money 50 per cent to the First Division, 25 per cent to the Second, 25 to the Third and Fourth. The old First Division clubs broke away, backed by the Football Association, specifically to grab the huge money about to pour in from satellite TV, and not share it with the rest of football. Since then, the Premiership's TV deals have added up to a massive £3.675bn, only droplets of which have been shared with the other clubs.

The delegation argued that if collective selling must be justified in the public interest, the EC should require the Premiership to share more of its money. Here, when the Office of Fair Trading launched an identical challenge, the Premier League agreed in 1999 to distribute 5 per cent of its TV deals to grass roots facilities, an arrangement which, via the Football Foundation, has seen millions going from the moneyed élite to the country's battered playing fields - for the first time ever.

The delegation pointed to the Nice Declaration on Sport (see panel), a soufflé of warm words on sport's importance, which includes the principle that TV proceeds should be shared. Sources close to the negotiations say the Premier League were prepared to agree to greater redistribution, if it would have led to the retention of collective selling.

Monti, however, was uninterested, saying that Nice, however nice, has no force of law, and pales into worthlessness beside the EU's free market doctrine. In August 2003, the commission stated it could still break up collective selling, while Premier League officials scurried to negotiate a settlement. Political pressure was discreetly applied, from the Prime Minister's office down.

Eventually, in December last year, the EC reached agreement with the Premiership on its 2004-07 deals, which are due to be signed off in January. The result of this three-and-a-half year campaign? A £1.1bn deal, including four live pay TV packages, all with Sky, showing 138 matches, plus highlights and - the EC's great victory - eight matches to be broadcast live on terrestrial television. For that, the battle was fought.

BSkyB is still dominant, although supporters are wearying of too many matches and the dizzying schedule of kick-off times. But there is no more even redistribution of the TV money - a golden opportunity lost to restore "solidarity" in English football. The agreement only applies to this deal; next year, the Premier League will begin negotiations to renew its TV arrange- ments, and the EC will prepare to challenge all over again.

"The EC had a great chance to do some good," Andy Burnham said. "They could have reinstated more equal sharing of money, to benefit the game from the élite to the grass roots. They missed an open goal because of their fundamentalist free market approach."

There has been talk of giving sport "specificity" - special status - but there is nothing more solid yet than Nice. Sport falls into the middle of battles between the competition authorities and Europe's mightiest corporations. Without further protection, the EC will threaten again, to carve up football irreparably, to the benefit of a handful of clubs - who don't even want it themselves.