pounds 125m Sky deal agreed by League

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The extraordinary hold football has on television was demonstrated again yesterday when the Football League announced a pounds 125m deal with BSkyB television. With it, the day when pounds 1bn of television money finances the national sport moved closer.

The five-year contract, which begins next August, will mean up to 60 First, Second and Third Division matches will be screened live on satellite along with the three end-of-season Wembley promotion play-offs and games in the Coca-Cola Cup.

As for those people able to afford only terrestrial television, they will be limited to just the FA Cup live and highlights of the other competitions on BBC and ITV. The people's game has gone beyond the reach of some.

It has also gone into the realms of unprecedented wealth. In addition to yesterday's windfall, BSkyB, the BBC and ITV have reached a four-year agreement worth pounds 135m for covering FA Cup and international matches, while BSkyB's contract to show Premiership matches comes up for renewal in August 1997. The bidding, if reports of ITV's initial offer are to believed, will begin at pounds 700m.

Yesterday's deal, which ignored alternative packages put together by the Football Association and the Premier League, could mean as much as pounds 1m a year for First Division clubs, with slightly scaled down payments to those in the Second and Third Divisions. The exact division will be decided next month.

"For some of our clubs this deal will be a lifeline," Gordon McKeag, the president of the League, said. "It will increase revenue and raise their viability at a crucial time. This agreement is the most important ever secured by the Football League and assures us of our autonomy."

The contract will increase the income derived from television from pounds 8m to pounds 25m a year for the Endsleigh clubs and, allied to extra advertising from live matches, will almost certainly kill the threat of major clubs breaking away to form a Premier League Division Two.

Lee Walker, the League's controller of broadcasting, said: "It's a great deal. In pure financial terms it is the most lucrative we have ever signed. But it has far greater significance."

Nevertheless the delight was not without reservation. Ian Stott, the chairman of First Division Oldham Athletic, was cautious, saying: "In the long term we may live to regret what has happened because we might have achieved better terms if we had waited."

Meanwhile, the Premier League expressed amazement and some anger at the League's decision to accept the Sky offer. Sources at the Premier League said the deal would not influence their own negotiations with television companies for the rights to Premier games, which have not started yet.

"We have no intention of limiting ourselves to one bidder," a spokesman said. "It's clear that the Premier League is what everybody wants and the market for it will be competitive."

Rick Parry, the Premier League's chief executive added: "We believe the time ought to have been given to discuss the issue of coverage; the distribution of monies in the game and the opportunities offered by broadcasting technology.

"I am surprised that this deal has been done when there was no need to rush into it. However, it will have no effect on the Premier League's own television negotiations which will begin when we are ready."

Tim Crabbe, the chairman of the Football Supporters' Association, also had reservations. "By not having any matches on terrestrial television we will have difficulty attracting new fans to the game," he said. "Not everyone wants to buy a satellite dish.

"Television needs the game at the moment and perhaps the football authorities should dig in their heels a bit more and dictate what they want. They should tell television, 'Here are our fixtures and dates, now name your price'. A number of feature games have been switched to Sundays on ITV this season, meaning a lot of inconvenience and expense for the fans."

Since its launch in 1991, Sky Sport has relied heavily on football with more than 400 matches screened live during the past four seasons on two sports channels. In the first full season (1991-92) it broadcast 75 live games. But last season this total almost doubled to 143.

Sky already has contracts to broadcast 60 live Premiership games exclusively each season, one FA Cup tie and one replay live from the first round to the semi-finals and every England international at Wembley exclusively live.

Yesterday's deal means BSkyB now has a toe-hold on every major domestic football competition in England and Scotland. For "No turning back", the company's advertising slogan, perhaps it should now read "no turning off."

Hogging the ball: how Sky dominate football on British TV

Sky's contracts

FA Premier League: 60 exclusive live games a season *

Endsleigh League: 60 exclusive live games a season (from 1996-97 season, for five years)

FA Cup: at least one tie and replay exclusively live from the first round to semi-finals *

England internationals: all games at Wembley exclusively live *

Scottish football: 9 league, 5 Tennents Cup and 3 Coca-Cola Cup games live and exclusive a season (until end of 1997-98 season)

BBC contracts

FA Premier League: highlights *

FA Cup: live coverage of one tie from third round, including one semi- final and the final *

England internationals: highlights of England games at Wembley *

* (contract ends 1996-97 season)

ITV contracts

Endsleigh League and Coca-Cola Cup: exclusive live and highlights coverage (contract ends 1995-96 season)