The 2007-08 Premiership season will not be live on just one channel. Neil Rose explores how much competition there'll be

“For the first time in the history of the Premier League, free-to-air television will have a realistic opportunity to show live Premier League matches.” So said the European Commission. Not during the current shenanigans over competition for television rights, but two years ago when it persuaded the Premier League and Sky to sub-license a measly eight matches (out of 138) to be shown by another broadcaster. Nobody took up the offer.

But as part of that deal, the Premier League also agreed that for the next round of TV rights – 2007 to 2010 – no single buyer would be able to acquire all the live games exclusively. To ensure this and because the Commission realises the Premier League got the better of it last time (four live packages on offer, all won by Sky), we have had the latest sparring between the two sides to hammer out how next year’s bidding process will work; the alternative is the EC beginning legal proceedings.

This heady mix of football, money, Rupert Murdoch and meddling Brussels bureaucrats has made a great media story, yet you have to question how much will actually change for the viewer. This time, the league’s offer to other broadcasters has to be “viable and meaningful”, a phrase that has not been defined in any detail. The agreement with the Commission may see the rights split into six packages of 23 games, with each containing a spread of matches that includes the top teams and can tell “the story of the season” (there had better be a good number of Chelsea games, then). No broadcaster could win more than five packages – some way short of the 50 per cent cap the EC is thought to have originally wanted – and it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that Sky will go right to that limit.

It will not cost them as much as now and, if 115 games remain in Richard Keys’ hirsute hands, the loss of 23 to another broadcaster is unlikely to do too much damage, whatever the fuss about the loss of exclusivity. Football, of course, is the foundation on which Sky was built, transforming it from a loss-maker into a cash cow. But, 13 years down the line, retaining football fan subscribers is at least as important as winning new ones and 115 should be enough to do that, probably without reducing rates, either.

At the same time, Sky should face more competition than previously. Setanta, the newly merged NTL and Telewest, the BBC, ITV, Five and even BT are among potential bidders, possibly in a combination such as NTL and ITV. A free-to-air broadcaster winning some live games would surely be a good thing – even if it meant more John Barnes on our screens – but what if a cable company won them and punters had to shell out another £10 or £15 a month to access their sports channel? Hardly a victory for viewers, even though the Commission says that consumer choice is one of its driving priorities. Less overall income from the rights, which is predicted, would be bad news for the clubs, too, but sympathy for them will be in short supply.

The Premier League is not the first football body to come under the EC’s gaze. UEFA was first in the dock in 2003 over the Champions League – hence the split of games between ITV and Sky – while earlier this year the German league agreed to a major unbundling of rights in 2006. However, the Premier League has wondered why Canal Plus’s deal in France last year, which saw it scoop exclusive rights to Ligue 1, has not faced the same scrutiny as its Sky tie-up.

Also up for conjecture is the contents of research compiled by UK media regulator Ofcom to aid the European Commission’s work. This has not been published as yet, but is rumoured to suggest that football on TV – contrary to popular opinion – has not reached saturation point and that there should actually be more games screened. It is also said to reject any link between falling attendances and increased TV coverage. The league apparently considers it seriously flawed.

But what, ultimately, this is all about is the joint selling of TV rights by associations such as the Premier League. These are inherently anti- competitive arrangements under the law – in part because the clubs cannot compete to sell their own rights and also because big rights packages are beyond the reach of smaller media players, reducing choice and pushing up the price. However, joint selling has its advantages for consumers, too, and the EC is, in effect, prepared to do a deal – it will allow joint selling if the rights are unbundled.

So while the Premier League have been dragged unwillingly into this process and reject the whole basis of the Commission’s argument, they have clearly decided that what is on the table now is more palatable than the alternative.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month

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