Sky makes pounds 140m bid for European Cup

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The Independent Online
Sky television appears to have taken a step closer to their ambition of broadcasting the Five Nations' Championship. It was announced last night that they had made a massive pounds 140m bid for exclusive rights to broadcast the European Cup and the secondary tournament, the European Conference, over the next four years.

Sky was said to be confident the bid would succeed, possibly because it is so high that any rival consortium would neither want, nor be able, to compete. Only a week ago, ITV, who had covered the first year of the European Cup at a more modest cost of pounds 5m, decided not to take up their option to broadcast the troubled tournament for the next two years, saving themselves a further pounds 10m.

A consortium incorporating cable and terrestrial interests is believed to be ready to bid against Sky, but Rupert Murdoch's satellite company is favourite to clinch the deal.

There would seem to be a hidden agenda. In return for such a generous offer, Sky will want to negotiate with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish unions, probably individually, to secure the rights to their internationals. That would bring those Unions into line with England, who have already struck a deal worth pounds 87.5m over five years, beginning in 1997. Originally, Sky followed up their deal with England by offering to buy out the exclusive broadcasting rights from Wales for pounds 40.5m, and from Scotland and Ireland for pounds 28m each.

European Rugby Cup Ltd, the company which runs the tournament, had to negotiate at long distance after ITV's withdrawal as its officials are in Rome for International Board meetings. The company now has very little time to decide whether to accept Sky's bid as their competition is due to kick off on 12 October.

If ERC decide to go ahead with Sky, it will almost certainly mean that Heineken, after whom the European Cup was to have been named, would continue with their financial backing worth around pounds 4.6m.

The Sky cash would be welcome as the two tournaments, involving 44 teams from seven countries - the Five Nations, plus Italy and Romania - will swallow large amounts of money in travelling expenses alone.

Any Sky deal with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish unions would run over the same period as the Rugby Football Union's arrangement, although it almost certain that some kind of deal would be struck with a terrestrial station to share the rights.

Such deals would not pose a threat to the Five Nations, since the four Home Unions and France have agreed that when the RFU deal expires, the broadcast rights to the historic tournament will be negotiated jointly by all five countries. Until then, it is every country for itself as far as raising cash from those rights goes.

Since clubs in Wales and Scotland have been following England's lead and muttering darkly of splitting from their governing bodies, guarantees of such large sums of money will be a useful bargaining tool in the hands of the various Unions in keeping the clubs under their wing.

Twickenham was roundly criticised and kicked out of the Five Nations' Championship for selling England's two home matches in the tournament to Sky. The RFU has subsequently acknowledged that it was in the wrong, but since the deal they struck with Sky was legally binding, when the Five Nations readmitted England they had to accept that they were stuck with it. Now, ironically, they may have to strike something similar themselves.

Harlequins' victory, page 27