Inside Football: Row over TV negotiators' deal grows as grass roots game suffers in silence

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The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH, the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, meets the Premier League and FA chairmen today to discuss a little-publicised but nevertheless landmark event in English football - the pledge by the Premier League to give five per cent of its next television deal, in 2001, to improving facilities at the game's grass roots.

The promise, made in the Football Task Force's last report, means the top level of the professional game putting money for the first time ever into the public parks and playing fields on which the vast majority of the country's footballers, including emerging young talent, play the game. The Task Force has had its problems, seen again this week with the leak of an internal document apparently prepared by the football authorities, but the five per cent pledge contained in the report, "Investing in the Community", represents a considerable concrete achievement.

Published in January, the report gave full support to the Premier League in its case against the Office of Fair Trading, and the Premiership pledged the money if it won. With the judge having ruled in the Premier League's favour in July, citing the Task Force's support as "powerful", the Premier League must now move to make good its pledge.

The report painted what it described as "a bleak picture" of facilities at the grass roots, the result of years of local authority cuts, at a time when professional football, in particular the Premiership, has rolled in money. According to the Sports Council, only half the 78,000 football pitches in England have changing-rooms. As any Sunday League trundler will testify, those which do exist are mostly dilapidated, with a hot shower, after a game on a mudbath, a rare luxury.

The report found some depressing examples - a Merseyside council using converted shipping containers as changing-rooms, describing its own facilities as "appalling" and a council in a prosperous part of London short of pounds 500,000 to provide hot running water. Laments were heard nationwide. The bedraggled wastlelands contrast shamefully with the wealth at the top of football: in Manchester, only two miles from Old Trafford, the treble winners' multi- million pound corporate HQ, lies Chorlton Park, a sorry, forsaken scrap of land, its wrecked changing- rooms now totally demolished, serving as a home for children's football.

It is against this background that the Premier League row over the appointment of two consultants, Sam Chisholm and David Chance, to negotiate the next TV deal, should be measured. In March, the Premier League clubs sacked their chief executive, Peter Leaver, and chairman, Sir John Quinton, after discovering the terms of the deal with the two former BSkyB executives: a reported pounds 1.3m annual retainer, five per cent commission on any increase they achieved on the Premier League's current pounds 743m, four-year TV contract, plus five per cent of a Premier League TV station, if one were set up.

This story, of the two five per cents, is apparently as clear an indictment of the Premier League's priorities as could be found; the same percentage pledged to the whole country's playing fields as to two TV executives. The Premier League clubs are now fighting each other over how best to extricate themselves from the deal, whether to renegotiate the terms down or see Chisholm and Chance in court. Nine clubs have voted against a renegotiated package, led, according to sources, by David Dein of Arsenal, Freddie Fletcher of Newcastle and Rick Parry of Liverpool. Premier League sources say that, despite the disagreement on tactics, all clubs are united in principle against the size of the duo's fees. "There is a consensus among all the clubs," said a Premier League insider, "that the deal is obscene."

Yet some details muddy the waters of this apparently sudden new moral purpose at the Premier League about excessive personal gain. Sources close to Leaver - who is also suing the Premier League, for wrongful dismissal - say that the deal has been exaggerated, that Chisholm and Chance were to get five per cent only if they achieve a huge overall deal for the Premier League. And television analysts say that, however outlandish the deal looks, it is in fact common for TV rights negotiators to be paid commission on increases. They point out that over 95 per cent of the deal will still come to the Premier League clubs, an assortment of fledgling plcs and privately owned fiefdoms.

And here is where some observers get cynical. The Premier League was formed in 1992 to break away from sharing television money with the rest of football. Several individuals, mostly chairmen, who bought club shares cheaply before then have since made huge personal fortunes. In addition, of the clubs leading the opposition, Arsenal voted against both previous BSkyB deals, and Newcastle and Liverpool are now partially owned by rival TV operators NTL and Granada respectively.

This row, rather than being solely about moral outrage over Chisholm's and Chance's fees, is only part of the wider battle over the direction of the television deal in 2001. It is still not clear whether all clubs will be happy to do a single collective deal, despite the outcome of the OFT case.

With the clubs now aligning themselves more closely with media companies, observers suspect a greater desire by the bigger clubs to explore their own deals, if only for the rights to some matches. For these shareholders the best deal for the club also means the best deal for their shareholdings; David Dein, for example, has shares in Arsenal currently valued at around pounds 37m.

The estimated 1.4 million children, youth and amateur footballers facing another season on the decaying municipal mudbaths of English football will be hoping the Premier League can be taken at its word and that these are the first steps towards shaping a more decent set of priorities for football.

David Conn is the author of "The Football Business" (Mainstream, pounds 7.99)

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