The Ball Game: U.K. Soccer Set to Change, Stay the Same

A court ruling in favor of the current arrangement for negotiating the T.V. broadcast rights won't stop the richest clubs from getting richer.
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"This is a victory for common sense," declared

British Sky Broadcasting

following this week's court ruling in favor of maintaining the way current television broadcasting rights to soccer matches are sold. Common sense perhaps, but the satellite broadcaster's claim that this system is the best way to help safeguard the future of the second-tier clubs in the next millennium is doubtful.

Denis Law, a famous British soccer player, once said: "The one thing that has never changed in the history of football is the shape of the ball." It seems that soccer in the U.K. will continue changing,for the worst despite the ruling by the judge in the

Restrictive Practices Court

in favor of the status quo.

The practices court judge hit the nail on the head by indicating that the current arrangement is the lesser of two evils. Regardless of how the broadcasting rights are sold, soccer in the U.K. is still a game in which the gap between the richest clubs and the poorest keeps widening.

OFT Drops the Ball

At the beginning of this year, the

Office of Fair Trading

, the U.K.'s consumer watchdog, charged the 20 clubs that make up the English

Premier League

, the top division of English soccer, with acting as a cartel when selling the broadcasting rights to matches.

The current arrangement is that Sky, which is 40% owned by

News Corporation

(NWS) - Get Report

, holds the exclusive rights to broadcast live games, while the

BBC

can show the highlights to all the matches.

The fair trading office argued that this is unfair to other broadcasters and to fans because only 60 of the league matches played each season are shown live. Instead, the watchdog believes that clubs should negotiate individually for the sale of their matches to broadcasters.

The judge of the court, in handing down his ruling, conceded that the fair trading office had some good points, but he was compelled to rule in favor of the current arrangements because "they are not against the public interest."

The public interest here, as argued by the Premier League, concerns the issue that should the clubs negotiate TV rights individually, the top clubs such as

Manchester United

would receive substantially more money than the smaller clubs such as

Bradford City

because their games attract more viewers. In this way, the more equitable distribution of the TV money between the clubs is conducive toward creating a competitive environment for the sport.

The Premier League could hardly contain its joy at the ruling, declaring itself the guardian of the national sport against the interference of bureaucrats. However, the current system is not as egalitarian as the Premier League would like to admit, nor does it make all that much sense.

No Such Thing as Socialism in Sport

Neil Bradford, director of the media and sport consultancy

Fletcher Research

, points out that the wealth gap between the bigger and smaller clubs is already widening, and had the fair trading office won the case, this process would merely have speeded up.

Furthermore, while there is some equality with the current arrangements, the top clubs tend to have more games shown live, which means they get a greater share of the TV revenues.

"The financial gap between clubs is a slow juggernaut," Bradford says. "Nothing can stop it."

Not only is the idea of the Premier League as the guardian of soccer somewhat of a sham, but the ruling is also likely to be a victory of the more Pyrrhic variety than the rise in Sky's shares would suggest. Sky shares closed up 2.5% at 580 pence on Wednesday. They closed Friday up 1% at 581 pence.

Beginning March 2000, a new competitions act will come into force, which abolishes the Restrictive Practices Court and empowers the director of the fair trading office to look into any agreements it deems anti-competitive. This defendant can appeal any fair trading office ruling to the newly created

Competition Commission

.

"And we will have to consider looking into this matter again in light of this ruling," a spokesman for the fair trading office told

TSC

.

As a result, when Sky's current exclusive contract expires in 2001, the broadcaster is unlikely to walk away with a similar one to its current arrangement.

In the great scheme of things, this week's ruling is merely a blip in the inexorable process toward creating a league within a league, where only the top handful of clubs -- Manchester United,

Arsenal

,

Chelsea

,

Liverpool

and

Tottenham Hotspur

-- have the finances to prosper.

Julie Burchill, a British journalist, once wrote that soccer "is a sport with a great future behind it." Alas, the way things stand, that future is becoming more and more distant.