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Wednesday, March 17, 1999 Published at 16:24 GMT

A takeover too far?

Clubs like Liverpool and Arsenal may also be tempted to sell

The government has the unenviable task of deciding whether or not to allow Rupert Murdoch's BskyB to buy Manchester United.

Murdoch's big match
The Trade Secretary, Stephen Byers, is currently examining recommendations made by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). The outcome could change the face of football, now no longer a sport but more a media event.

The MMC asked itself two principal questions when considering the possibility of BSkyB owning the world's biggest club:

  • Is it acceptable on competition grounds?
  • Is it in the public interest?

BSkyB already has exclusive rights to transmit 60 live Premier League matches. If it ends up owning the world's biggest club, it will find itself on boths sides of the negotiating table and may be able to swing the balance in its own favour.

With a monopoly over what the foobtall-loving public gets to watch, smaller clubs will suffer and get little or no coverage.

Media interest

Also, a green light to BSkyB may open the turnstiles to other broadcasting companies keen to step onto the pitch.

Carlton has shown an interest in owning Arsenal, while Newcastle United has already received a bid from cable operator NTL.

And even if the Murdoch deal is blocked, other media companies may still try their luck. Manchester-based Granada had already expressed an interest in Manchester United in the past. If it fails here then it may make a play for Liverpool.

Other candidates for takeover

There has been strong opposition from fans, TV authorities and parliament who believe Murdoch will gain a stranglehold on football.

But the clubs themselves are more than willing to be seduced by takeovers.

Manchester United's major Premiership rivals like Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Everton, Newcastle United are owned either by one businessman or a small number of major shareholders.

All of them would be tempted by buyout offers to make a tidy profit on their investment.

Millionaire computer mogul Alan Sugar is reported to be keen to sell his majority stake in Tottenham Hotspur.

Sir John Hall and his family may be tempted to bid a fond farewell to Newcastle United and the Moores family could be persuaded to give up their 68% stake in Liverpool football club.

Fierce opposition

But the Department of Trade and Industry is also well aware of all the different camps opposed to the deal.

Sports Minister Tony Banks and Football Taskforce head David Mellor are among those who have expressed reservations about the deal.

MPs from all parties have argued that it is not in the best interests of the viewing public, the clubs themselves and the sport as a whole.

The Independent Television Commission fears the deal would distort the TV market and hamper the sale of broadcast rights. And fans believed the club should remain independent.

Premier League under fire

[ image: The OFT is fighting the Premier League 'cartel']
The OFT is fighting the Premier League 'cartel'
In the midst of all the arguments for and against, the Premier League itself is under attack from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The OFT claims the league is acting as a cartel by negotiating broadcasting rights on behalf of clubs and has taken it to the Restrictive Practices Court.

The court makes its ruling in June and if it decides against the league, football clubs will be able to negotiate their own TV deals.

No doubt Murdoch wants to hedge his bets by owning the largest club to beat off the competition ahead of 2001 when BSkyB's Premier League rights come up for renewal - or if indeed the OFT wins its case.

Pay-per-view spectre

Pay-per-view television broadcast on emerging digital channels is a spectre that looms all too large for Murdoch opponents.

Last month Oxford and Sunderland took part in Britain's first ever pay-per-view experiment. The fear is that if it becomes as commonplace as it is in countries like Italy, the football fan on the terraces will take second place to the viewer at home.

But pay-per-view and a possible consolidation of major clubs into a European Superleague would be good news for BSkyB if it owned a club as popular as Manchester United.

Small clubs, however, would be squeezed off the screens forever.

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