Uefa hint at letting Sky into Europe

Satellite companies may be allowed to challenge for the Champions' League rights
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The Independent Online

Just when the bosses at ITV thought things could not get any worse, Europe's governing body, Uefa, have hinted that the Champions' League rights, which are up for sale at the end of next season, may be offered to non-terrestrial operators for the first time.

ITV have been showing Champions' League matches since the old European Cup was altered in format 10 seasons ago. Uefa, though, are believed to be considering letting satellite companies such as BSkyB tender for the live rights. The next contract will cover the three seasons between 2003 and 2006.

While there is no suggestion that this is Uefa's way of punishing ITV for the problems incurred by ITV Digital, who went into administration just under two weeks ago, the network's failure to control the troubled operator could still cost them dear. "We have had a good working relationship with ITV," said Mike Lee, the Uefa director of communications, "but they are not in a privileged position just because they have had the rights in the past. Just like any other bidder next time, they will have to prove they are equipped to do the competition justice."

ITV's problems are twofold. In the first instance, they must try to stop ITV Digital from being switched off before the conclusion to this season's Champions' League. Indeed, as part of their commitments to Uefa, ITV must ensure that the matches which are not shown on terrestrial television on Wednesdays are made available on another network. Two years ago, ITV sub-licensed Tuesday-night matches to ONDigital (now the ITV Sports Channel), owned by the troubled ITV Digital.

The second dilemma facing ITV is that they have left themselves open to criticism by allowing ITV Digital – co-owned by two of the network's largest affiliates, Carlton Communications and Granada – to overbid so dramatically for the Nationwide football rights. Carlton and Granada have tried to distance themselves from the crisis by claiming that this was a deal brokered exclusively between ITV Digital and the Football League, but their hands are sullied as well.

At a time when the German media company Kirch, who own the rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, are edging ever closer to collapse, the last thing Uefa wanted to see was another unfulfilled television deal. "In general," Lee admitted, "we do feel that there is a need to keep the spiralling costs of football under tighter control."

That, though, may be easier said than done. One solution might be to impose a cap on players' salaries. As was exclusively reported in The Independent on Sunday last week, senior figures at the Football Association have discussed this radical option in crisis talks with club chairmen and Government ministers. While difficult to impose because of European laws which forbid the restriction of trade, any move which could curb the spending habits of clubs would be welcomed by Uefa. "We can't impose a cap but we are very supportive of the debate," Lee said. "We are particularly sympathetic to the idea of preventing clubs from spending beyond their means."

Which brings us back to ITV Digital and the money they promised the Nationwide League clubs. In buying the rights to First, Second, and Third Division games, the operator pledged £315m over the next three years. Consequently, most of the clubs budgeted in accordance with these sums. Brentford, for example, set in place long-term contracts with their best players as soon as the ITV Digital deal was signed. "Because of the Bosman ruling, we have to plan ahead," said the Bees' chairman, Ron Noades. "You have to be at least two years ahead of the game, so I've been looking well into the future since the beginning of the season. Now I may as well throw all my calculations out of the window."

Brentford are relatively lucky because they own the freehold to their ground, but even so they will be put under huge financial strain if ITV Digital do not pay up. "Put it this way," Noades said, "if we go up to the First Division [Brentford are one of three clubs vying for the top two automatic promotion places] then we will break even. If we don't, we'll be £1.4m in debt. This is a real double-edged sword, but I think that if we can squeeze one year's worth of payments from ITV Digital then we'll be able to survive for now."

First Division chairmen do not seem to be quite so conciliatory. They met on Tuesday and made it clear that they would not settle for much less than the £178m they are due. "There are one or two prats in that League," Noades said, "who are greedy and stupid enough to believe they will never be relegated. On the whole, though, I think that the Nationwide clubs are pretty much united. The only reason why the First Division chairmen are more aggressive is because they stand to lose more." Football as a whole would appear to be skating on very thin ice.

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