Football League officials have hit back at the claim by the Manchester United chief executive, Peter Kenyon, that the three-hour Saturday afternoon television black-out on the game should come to an end.
Faced with resentment from Manchester United fans at the lack of traditional three o'clock kick-offs this season and the likelihood of a large number of fixtures being given back to the clubs to sell on an individual basis within 18 months, Kenyon is keen to see the Saturday afternoon ban lifted. As it stands, no live game can be shown between 2.30pm and 5.30pm. With the police unwilling to sanction evening weekend matches and the Champions' League programme cramping the fixture list, a huge proportion of United matches have been scheduled for Saturday lunchtimes.
Kenyon wants the issue to be raised during negotiations for the next Premiership contract, which is due to come into effect at the start of the 2004-05 season. However, the Football League's head of communications, John Nagle, reiterated fears that the move would have a disastrous effect on attendances elsewhere.
"Anyone with a wider perspective and the best interests of the whole game at heart would have to realise that the Saturday afternoon black-out is sacrosanct," said Nagle. "Showing the most popular sides in the country live on Saturday afternoons could have a disastrous effect on attendances in the rest of the Premier League, the Football League and non-League, with the subsequent economic consequences being obvious. It could also have negative effects on participation levels in Saturday leagues across the country.
"Manchester United have a problem satisfying the interests of the broadcasters as well as their own supporters but this suggestion cannot be the best for the game as a whole."
As the most popular team in the country, with a vast worldwide fan base, United are in an almost unique position. If they were made available, virtually every game could attract interest from one station or another, but current regulations mean none of their games can be played on Saturday afternoon.
While joining the Old Trafford manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and England captain David Beckham in their dislike of lunchtime football, the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association has previously rejected the lifting of the black-out for the reasons Nagle advances.
It has called for the new TV contract to include a clause which states every club should schedule at least 50 per cent of their home games for Saturday afternoons, preventing them from being shown on TV.
The European Community has demanded that the practice of wholesale distribution of games through a central body should end because it deems it anti-competitive on the basis that companies not successful in the tender process are excluded from showing matches.
Instead, the EC believes that individual clubs should be allowed to sell the rights to their own home games.
* Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has been given the go-ahead for a merger of Italy's two satellite platforms, Telepiu and Stream, who have hitherto shared Serie A rights, meaning that while Juventus fans could watch their side's home games on Telepiu, they had to sign up for Stream if they wanted to see away games. Now with one subscription they will effectively be able to buy a "season ticket" for every game their team plays.