It could be far worse than Murdoch, writes Ken Gall
European Union policy on anti-competitive practices may not be the topic du jour for most WSC readers, but the keen interest shown recently by commissioner Mario Monti in the Premiership’s cosy TV deal with Sky may yet have implications for the game at all levels. And anyone who deplores English football’s alliance with Rupert Murdoch might have to face an alarming possibility: that the alternative might be far, far worse. Any departure from the current collective agreement could result in the bigger clubs selling the rights to their games individually, leaving clubs at all levels – along with grass-roots projects such as the Football Foundation – facing a shattering cut in revenue.
Signor Monti probably echoed the thoughts of many when he said that the Sky deal was “illegal and tantamount to price-fixing”. In essence, the Commission’s inherent resistance to monopolies and cartels means that the exclusivity in Sky’s deal is frowned upon. For example, such a deal prevents other broadcasters from covering those matches not blessed by the presence of Richard Keys. Also, anyone wishing to watch live Premiership football in England has no option but to enter into a contract with Sky or a similar operator.
Leigh MP Andy Burnham has warned that an end to collective bargaining could produce a fractured system, as in other countries. “In Italy, last season did not start on time because clubs failed to get their deals in place. Spain is facing meltdown and is looking to return to a collective deal for the same reason.”
Burnham and other MPs have met Monti to make it clear that the EC’s desire to end restrictive practices in broadcasting – the real target, Burnham feels – should not have the unintended consequence of further destabilising football in this country.
The current deal ensures that five per cent of TV revenue – some £20 million a year – is passed on to projects such as the Football Foundation, providing local pitches and youth facilities around the country. Burnham and his colleagues now want ten per cent of the next TV deal to go to all levels of the game below the Premiership, including Nationwide clubs hit by the ITV Digital debacle, allowing football as a whole to benefit from the enormous popularity of the top end.
The worst-case scenario is substantially gloomier. “If Sky loses its exclusive rights, it will make a lower bid, meaning there is less money for the lower levels. If clubs sell their own rights, Charlton, Middlesbrough etc could be major losers,” says Burnham.
The big clubs, meanwhile, will pocket the difference and a bit more, leading to an increase in their already near-total dominance of the English game; a somewhat ironic consequence of a process whose whole purpose is to promote greater competition.
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month