And the winner is... Sky.
Those are the words you can expect to hear next summer, five times over, when the Premier League announces which broadcasters have won the live rights to Premiership matches from 2007-10. It was confirmed yesterday that six packages will be available and with Sky's main pay-TV rival, NTL, claiming it will not go head-to-head in the auction process, Sky is the overwhelming favourite to win five of the six. Under a new European Commission deal, no broadcaster can win more than five packages.
Sky has much lose, including annual subscription revenues of some £2bn from football fans, if it does not retain most of the rights. It also has the deepest pockets, which will help to ensure it keeps them. And because the selling process will be an auction in the truest sense - bidding and rebidding allowed, not just one bid in a sealed envelope, with the highest winning - the stage is set for it to exploit its financial clout.
Importantly, the EC is now satisfied that there will be no "stitch-up" in favour of Sky when the next rights are auctioned in the spring. It was widely believed, crucially by the EC, that Sky won all the rights last time, for seasons 2004-07, by paying an "exclusivity premium", or a bonus for getting everything. Sky has always declined to state categorically whether this was true.
Whatever, it cannot be the case next time. Each of the six new packages of rights - of 23 games each, as opposed to four packages last time, of 38, 38, 31 and 31 games - will be sold on a stand-alone basis.
Three key questions remain unanswered. Will the new set-up actually give football fans "greater choice and better value" as the EC claims? Will NTL really step meekly from the fray? And if it does, how might that affect the rights' value, and therefore Premiership clubs' income?
Greater choice is beyond debate. Two broadcasters, instead of only Sky, guarantees that. And there is an outside chance that the BBC, ITV or Five will make an audacious bid to win a package of games and bring live Premiership football to terrestrial TV, free to the viewer, for the first time.
Better value is not guaranteed. It is possible Sky will win five packages, and keep its prices to viewers the same, while a pay-TV operator such as Setanta wins the sixth, and charges for it. To watch the same number of games could actually cost more.
NTL apparently tried to argue this latter point last night, albeit in a slightly illogical statement. "We had hoped to lower the cost of watching football on TV," it said, after saying it would be "unlikely" to bid now for a majority of live rights "in the absence of a 50 per cent maximum rule". NTL had wanted the EC to rule that no broadcaster could win more than half of the rights.
NTL also claimed: "By refusing to amend the auction rules in a way that makes it feasible for other parties to bid for substantial packages of rights, the EU has failed to deliver a level playing field for competition."
This is nonsense. There is nothing at all to stop NTL, or indeed any broadcaster, outbidding Sky, if it has the resources or willingness to take a gamble that it can wrest control of such a prized asset for itself. After its merger with Telewest, NTL will have resources. But it seems the willingness to take a huge punt is absent.
So would NTL's absence from bidding bring the Premier League's overall revenue down? "Yes, it would be an almost inevitable consequence," says Neil Baylis, a partner with the law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, and a specialist in media and sports competition law. Trying to ascertain by how much, though, is pure guesswork.
Baylis adds that the EC's decision "offers competition in fact, not just theory - to that extent the Commission has 'won', but it remains to be seen with what effect on the market. Sky will almost certainly remain robustly dominant.
"The EC may have started with a 50-50 split in mind, but the Premier League, plus significant political lobbying, pushed this down to 'creating a viable second broadcaster'. Quite whether one-sixth of the rights is viable remains to be seen."
In other words, it is unlikely that having only one package of rights will offer much value to a broadcaster other than Sky in terms of a hold on the market. But whatever happens, Sky is likely to get - and pay for - only five-sixths of the rights next time, but keep its market dominance. Result, as footballing folk might say.
How will football on TV change?
The current deal (2004-07) included four packages, totalling 138 live games per season:
Package One: 38 games per season, mostly Sundays at 4pm. Sky paid £358m.
Package Two: 38 games, Mondays 8pm and Sundays 2pm. Sky paid £282m.
Package Three: 31 games, half Saturday lunchtime, others scattered. Sky paid £230m.
Package Four: 31 games, 5.15pm Saturdays. Sky paid £154m.
The new deal might look like this (details to be finalised):
Package One: 23 games per season, Sundays at 4pm.
Package Two: 23 games, Mondays, 8pm.
Package Three: 23 games, Sundays, some 4pm, some 2pm.
Package Four: 23 games, Saturday lunchtimes.
Package Five: 23 games, Saturdays, 5.15pm.
Package Six: 23 games, 'variety package', weekend and midweek variation.
Who's in the frame?
Holds exclusive rights. Certain to bid big for everything, desperate to keep majority.
A huge gamble to outbid Sky for a majority of rights would require a risk NTL has shown little evidence of taking.
Might launch joint bid with NTL, or try to regain highlights.
Likely to bid for one or two packages with the hope of gaining one, maximum.
Bid for an iconic 'Monday night football' package possible.
Wants be serious player, so expect bids for several packages with aim of getting toe, or leg, in the market.Reuse content