Football must bear the costs of its own mistakes

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The Independent Online

The state of football is a better test of this Government's belief in an enterprise culture than any amount of rhetoric from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Which is just as well, because Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for – among other things – Media and Sport, has shown a more robust belief in the free market than Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown's speech yesterday simply dressed up state subsidies for activities he deemed desirable – in this case, research and development – as "pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-competition".

Ms Jowell, on the other hand, committed herself to something politicians find much harder, which is to do nothing. In response to the increasingly desperate cries of anguish from the Football League and from the First, Second and Third Division clubs threatened by the collapse of ITV Digital, she said: "It is not the Government's role or responsibility to intervene and bail football out."

She is right. This is a crisis in which football clubs have colluded. They must have known – The Independent pointed it out to them at the time – that the forecasts for ITV Digital's audiences and revenues were hopelessly optimistic. They should not have been so dazzled by the Premiership's huge £1.5bn deal with ITV in 2000 as to think that British fans would pay to watch any football on television. (Why would they pay to watch second-rate British teams when they could watch first-rate Italian football for free on Channel 4?)

While the clubs might have hoped that Granada and Carlton, the channel's shareholders, would stump up the rest of the money they promised out of a sense of honour, the clubs should have realised that, if the TV companies could legally get out of throwing good money after bad, they would.

Of course, this is a serious financial blow to the lower divisions, although in an industry where clubs are often on the verge of bankruptcy, we should take predictions of as many as 30 or even 50 clubs going under with a pinch of scepticism. If clubs have spent too much on players or paid them too much, they will have to sell them or pay them less.

The shakeout will further widen the gap between rich and poor in football, which may be a shame, but it is not the Government's fault. ITV Digital has been a foreseeable failure, and it is now an irrecoverable one. It is not Ms Jowell's job to insulate football clubs from the consequences of gambling on wildly optimistic forecasts.

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