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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Football's TV battle

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Ruud van Nistelrooy
Ruud van Nistelrooy's heroics at Man Utd could fetch a high price...
The football industry may be taking its brief summer break but fans of the beautiful game have another enthralling contest to entertain them out of season.

The Premier League has put the television rights for the three years from 2004-5 up for grabs and no-one can predict where they'll end up.

Instead of a single mega-bloc of 66 live games as at present, the league has split the live rights into three different packages: a "gold" package of 38 top-flight games played at 4pm on a Sunday; a "silver" package of 38 games played at 2pm on a Sunday or 8pm on Monday; and a "bronze" package of 62 games played on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.

All three are available to free and pay broadcasters alike; the third is also available to pay-per-view operators.

The league has not divided the rights like this for sentimental or even hard-headed commercial reasons.

Most sports need exposure on terrestrial television, to keep the grassroots and the sponsors happy and to make sure people don't forget about them. But the Premiership is already on ITV in the form of weekly highlights.

The rights have been divided because the European Commission thinks the present set-up, where a monopoly supplier appears to sell exclusively to a single purchaser, encourages price-fixing and is unfair to both fans and clubs. The commission wanted individual clubs to sell their own rights.

But this is potentially a daft idea, because Manchester United and Arsenal might get even richer - while smaller clubs would face a tougher time.

Divvying up the live rights is another way of injecting competition into the bidding process and satisfying the commission.

Gamesmanship

Jason Euell
...but Jason Euell's efforts for Charlton would be harder to sell
There is no guarantee it will work. The commission has not approved the present offer and could even veto it, especially if Sky buys all three packages.

This is quite possible. You should believe none of the three broadcasters when they say they aren't interested or can't afford to bid. These are negotiating tactics: gamesmanship, designed to weaken the league's resolve.

Earlier this year BSkyB's chief executive Tony Ball threatened not to bid for the rights to the FA Cup and England internationals, hoping to frighten the FA into accepting a lower price. But in the end Sky bid.

Equally, take with a pinch of salt anyone who says Sky could do without the Premier League. Its pay TV business was built almost entirely on exclusive coverage of the Premiership.

Nowadays it has the Nationwide and Champions Leagues and some FA Cup and England matches as well. It also has many more channels, and people subscribe for many more reasons.

But losing the jewel in its crown would still be a blow, and people might cancel their subscriptions to Sky Sports just when Sky's declared aim is to increase revenue per subscriber.

But you should believe the broadcasters when they say they would like to pay less.

The present three-year deal, negotiated in 2000 at the height of sports rights fever, brings the league 1.6 billion over three years: 1.1 billion from Sky for the main package of 66 games, 183 million from ITV for highlights, 181 million from Sky and the cable companies for a package of 40 games available pay-per-view, and the rest from overseas rights.

The FA is now considering bids for the FA Cup and England games which are said to total less than the 400 million of the existing deal. The Premiership may have to bite the bullet and accept less as well.

Unpredictable

But predicting the outcome (or the price) is impossible. There are simply too many unanswered questions.

Would the league make more by selling all three packages to Sky, which might pay a premium for exclusivity, or by auctioning them to competing broadcasters?

Richard Keys
The face of Sky football: Richard Keys
Might the BBC and ITV, or the BBC and Five, or ITV and Five join forces to mount a shared bid for one of the packages, and if so at what price? Might Sky really bid for only the gold package, or is that more gamesmanship?

Would ITV make more advertising money from broadcasting live matches on a Sunday afternoon or Monday evening than from highlights on a Saturday night? Who might want the 62 matches in the bronze package, and could any terrestrial broadcaster afford or schedule that many games?

Then again, how will the outcome of the bidding for the FA rights affect interest in the Premiership? Will pay-per-view become more important next time round than it has proved up to now?

How will the availability for the first time of a "near live" package (allowing games to be transmitted on TV or broadband internet 90 minutes after the end of the game) affect bidders' calculations?

There is a great deal riding on the outcome. Finances are precarious at both the FA (which has the new Wembley stadium to finance) and some weaker Premiership clubs: if they get less money from TV the results could be disastrous.

But equally the Premiership is immensely valuable commercially (and, in the BBC's case, in terms of prestige) to the broadcasters.

Expect many weeks of wrangling, second-guessing and poker-playing before we know the winners and losers.

This feature also appears in the BBC publication Ariel.


SEE ALSO:
Fans vent anger over TV deal
23 Jun 03  |  Man Utd
TV Premiership D-Day
19 Jun 03  |  Eng Prem
Football frenzy for armchair fans
20 Jun 03  |  Eng Prem


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