Liverpool: let us agree our own TV rights deal

 

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The Independent Football

Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre has said that his club should be allowed to pursue their own international television rights deal and that they are being placed at a disadvantage to Real Madrid and Barcelona by being forced to share media income with smaller Premier League clubs.

A year to the day since Liverpool's takeover by Fenway Sports Groups (FSG) ended the turmoil and dislocation of the Tom Hicks and George Gillett era, Liverpool are financially still way adrift of Manchester United and remain in pursuit of a naming rights partner, without which the new stadium critical to the club's commercial development cannot be built. But in a first break with the Premier League's position of collective selling of the £1.4bn overseas TV rights, Ayre suggested that Liverpool should be allowed to sell their international TV rights individually, rather than take the same share of the money as the 19 other Premier League clubs. At United, the Glazer family remain adamant that a break-up of collective selling would potentially create a La Liga-style two- or three-club monopoly and critically weaken the Premier League's appeal.

However, Ayre said: "With the greatest of respect to our colleagues in the Premier League... if you're a Bolton fan in Bolton, then you subscribe to Sky because you want to watch Bolton, and everyone gets that. Likewise, if you're a Liverpool fan from Liverpool, you subscribe. But if you're in Kuala Lumpur there isn't anyone subscribing to [rights holders] Astro or ESPN to watch Bolton – or if they are, it's a very small number – whereas the large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. So is it right that the international rights are shared equally between all the clubs?

"Some people will say, 'Well you've got to all be in it to make it happen'. But isn't it really about who people want to watch on that channel? We know it is us – and others. At some point we definitely feel there has to be some rebalance on that, because what we are actually doing is disadvantaging ourselves against other big European clubs. If Real Madrid or Barcelona have the opportunity to truly realise their international media value potential, where does that leave Liverpool and Manchester United?"

The Premier League, whose chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has been aware of rumblings about Liverpool's position, will strongly resist any attempt by its bigger clubs to buck the system of collective bargaining, though some observers feel there is more scope to alter the equal redistribution of the overseas rights, in line with the way the Premier League's £18bn of domestic TV money is shared out. Only 50 per cent of the domestic pot is shared out equally, with 25 per cent distributed according to a club's final league position and 25 per cent according to the number of times a club appears on TV – up to a maximum of £26m. "The strength of the model is that you have clubs which can compete and that on any given Saturday you can actually have a Stoke [whose TV share was £46m last season] beating a Liverpool [£55m]," said a Premier League spokesman. "That is the international appeal of the league."

Though Chelsea are among a group of teams who have discussed Ayre's position, the club support collective bargaining. Chelsea and Arsenal have been advocates of the Liverpool view in the past. It would require 14 of the league's 20 members to vote for individual bargaining.

Ayre's position, which would not have been put forward without FSG's blessing, reveals the new owners' boldness in trying to shake up Liverpool's commercial fortunes. Chairman Tom Werner has refloated the 39th game idea and, with Liverpool's £184m revenues in the last financial year dwarfed by United's £286.4m, Ayre, whose side meet United at Anfield on Saturday, admitted that Old Trafford's vastly greater capacity – it secures United match-day income of £106.8m against Liverpool's £45.7m – was a problem.

"We are 30,000 seats behind our biggest competitor and that's worth a lot of money," Ayre said. Only a naming rights partner will render viable the stadium earmarked for Stanley Park, but Ayre said "a small group of people" worldwide were potentially willing to invest millions in the idea that a new commercial name for the iconic Anfield would catch on.

"It's very difficult to put a time on it," Ayre said. "Because if... you go into a room and say: 'We'd like this much money but we need the answer by the end of December', you then start to marginalise your value, because they say: 'OK, these guys are desperate to do a deal'. We're not desperate. We've got an amazing product, one of the biggest clubs in the world, and I don't recall any club of this size, with this international reach, that's ever done a naming rights deal."

A year ago today, Ayre was at the High Court, with his predecessor Christian Purslow and Martin Broughton, the former British Airways chairman hired to sell the club, winning a High Court action effectively giving them the right to sell Liverpool to FSG, even though the former American owners secured a dramatic, 11th-hour restraining order. Ayre revealed that he, Purslow and Broughton are all still being pursued individually for £1m by Hicks and Gillett, who claim that they were denied the right to repay Liverpool's debts to prevent the sale.

Ayre revealed that the most vivid moment of the extraordinary High Court scenes – which saw Anthony Grabiner QC being cheered along The Strand – came from the direction of the press gallery. "A group of Liverpool fans were up there, the judge came out and said, 'I'm sorry, you'll have to leave from there, it's a health and safety issue' and [somebody] up there said: 'Can we appeal against that?" he recalled.

Ayre, whose new owners have spent £71m since January, said Liverpool would have gone into administration had the case not been won and added that football should learn the lesson of the kind of highly leveraged buy-out which so devastated Liverpool. "There are lessons for people coming into football," he said. "They should understand not only the business effect but the effect on subculture and the fan base. As we saw, it had a very damaging effect on people."

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