Legal threat to Sky plans

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DAVID HELLIER AND MATHEW HORSMAN

Sky's chances of extending its coverage of Premier League football for another five years have been dealt a potentially serious blow.

Advisers close to the Premier League confirmed last night that they had received guidance from barristers that a clause written into the last agreement, allowing Sky to trump any offer for television rights, is considered ultra vires, or unlawful.

"This agreement has been around for three and a half years," said an adviser close to the Premier League. "It has come under intense scrutiny. It is our view that the clause is unenforceable."

The advice appears to open up the auction for the rights to Premiership matches, which have been the driving force behind Sky's success in the past three and a half years. Until now many experts have predicted that Sky's ability to extend its contract for another five years, albeit at a higher price than last time around, was a mere formality.

However, Sky insisted last night that its own senior counsel believed the clause to be enforceable. It accused the Premier League of: "trying to get leverage over Sky. This contract has a further two years to run. There is a first and last right in the contract and it is enforceable. He [the Premier League's chief executive, Rick Parry] is trying to put Sky in the position where it has to pay his price."

Sky announced on Tuesday that it had secured the rights to show Endsleigh League football, the Coca-Cola Cup and the FA Cup on its sports channels.

A Premier League spokesman told the Independent this week that the pounds 125m Sky deal with the Endsleigh League would in no way influence the negotiations for Premier League coverage. "We have no intention of limiting ourselves to one bidder," the spokesman said.

Yesterday Parry declined to comment on what he said were "commercially sensitive" matters. Media industry analysts expect that competing bids for the Premier League could come from ITV and a consortium of cable companies.

n ITV were yesterday forced to delay the widely anticipated announcement that they have secured a four-year deal for exclusive live coverage of the FA Cup final until next week.

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