Graham Kelly: European spanner in the works of Sky's steamroller

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The Independent Football

"The existing arrangements on television have, on balance, served clubs and fans well. The biggest problem is the financial disparity between the top league and the rest." So spoke representatives of a delegation of the all-party football committee of MPs earlier this year on the eve of a meeting with European Commissioners in Brussels.

"The existing arrangements on television have, on balance, served clubs and fans well. The biggest problem is the financial disparity between the top league and the rest." So spoke representatives of a delegation of the all-party football committee of MPs earlier this year on the eve of a meeting with European Commissioners in Brussels.

Since then the Commission has ruled against the Premier League's new three-year contract with Sky, insisting that up to eight live matches per season be made available to other broadcasters as from next season and determining that from 2007 there must be no exclusive broadcaster. No details are yet available of the terms on which Sky will release the matches next season under the deal, which is currently worth £1.02bn to the Premier League.

So does the action of the Commission indicate that the Sky steamroller is finally being halted, that all the lobbying was to no avail? One Premiership chairman said of the Brussels intervention: "They're no more than a bunch of raving lunatics, a cancer growing at the heart of Europe which will destroy us unless it's stopped. They're not accountable to anybody, they're just unelected bureaucrats fuelled by rampant socialism. They're doing their best to be bloody-minded, undemocratic and have two objectives: to damage Sky and promote a European league. They don't understand a thing about football."

What that chairman might consider is whether the end result of the anti-competition thrusts, both here and in Uefa, might turn out eventually to benefit a global operator such as Rupert Murdoch far more than a cursory examination of domestic media markets might reveal. After all, Sky already covers the Champions' League and Murdoch operates in the Far East and the United States.

Anyone seeking an eye-opening read to come out of the holiday torpor should get hold of The Murdoch Archipelago by Bruce Page, which recounts Murdoch's garnering of influence over three continents in fascinating detail. In the United Kingdom, difficult though it may be to believe, he influenced Margaret Thatcher via the columnist Lord Wyatt, and later I believe no one was surprised when Tony Blair's government overruled the firmly argued recommendations of Gavyn Davies's committee on the development of digital television because they would have disadvantaged Murdoch. (But Mr Page does overlook Stephen Byers' rejection of the Manchester United takeover by Sky).

The European Commission wants more matches available for live coverage when the next negotiations take place in 2006 for 2007-08. Sky will have to give up their exclusivity. When Football Association contracts were shared it was the BBC who took turns with Sky usually. ITV and Sky were uncomfortable bedfellows.

The availability of more matches should be good news for fans, as Mario Monti of Brussels desires, but the attraction of Sky to the Premier League has always been flexibility of scheduling. Presumably new ITV and BBC channels would come into play if they were bidders next time? Would Sky reduce subscription charges after losing exclusivity, given that the sports channels were originally a free service? Would they also cut down on the proprietorial smugness that afflicts many of their presenters and commentators and instruct them to ask questions that don't insult the viewers' intelligence?

Having demonstrated they were unable to handle the previous windfalls that the satellite revolution brought, the clubs have now been given two years to make some sense of their sorry finances before the exclusivity premium is phased out. Those MPs who travelled largely in vain to Brussels have to produce a report - expected in February - on the state of football's finances.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has already announced tax relief for supporters' trusts in his pre-Budget statement and is reported in certain political circles to be keenly awaiting the latest report with a view to initiating further reform in the game, re-opening the "fit and proper persons" test for club directors which the FA has been working on for what seems like an age now. In their impressive testimony to the parliamentary inquiry earlier in the year, both Supporters' Direct and the Football Supporters' Federation despaired at the lack of transparency in the game.

Maybe, just maybe, the days of excess are behind us, if it is only exclusivity that Europe was attacking and the Premier League is allowed to continue negotiating future deals collectively. Free-for-alls would lead to lunacy and in that respect at least our reactionary Premier League chairman was right. He and his colleagues might just as well have posted their chequebooks off to Old Trafford if it had become all for one and one for all.

As things stand, there is a chance of sanity returning.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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