Rupe penalty check

Murdoch's soccer plans face opposition

LONDON — Some of the chairmen of English Premier League soccer clubs want to bar Manchester United — the club being bought by Rupert Murdoch for $1.04 billion — from future TV rights negotiations.

The soccer execs intend to exclude United — or any other team owned by a broadcaster — the next time the TV rights to the league are negotiated. BSkyB, the News Corp.-controlled satcaster through which Murdoch is acquiring United, paid over $1 billion for the rights two years ago and holds them until 2001-2002.

Facing foes

Those opposed to United participating in talks argue that Murdoch would be both a buyer and seller at the table — a clear conflict of interest. The same would be true of the Arsenal if that team is taken over by the ITV network company Carlton Communications. United and Arsenal are the two most successful English soccer clubs.

Chelsea soccer club chairman, Ken Bates, said, “They would be allowed to vote when the proposals were put before the Premiership clubs but not be party to the talks. How can they be?”

Come January, however, the Restrictive Practices Court may rule that BSkyB’s current contract with the Premier League is illegal because the deal was negotiated collectively and is therefore anti-competitive.

Should clubs then be allowed to sell their TV rights individually, Premier League matches could be split among broadcasters. ITV, for example, could air Arsenal’s home games. Small clubs that nevertheless have a strong local following could end up on niche channels.

Official probe

The Office of Fair Trading has begun its investigation of Murdoch’s bid, which was accepted by United’s board of directors last week.

The OFT will report to Peter Mandelson, the trade secretary, by Oct. 12. Mandelson — who is considered friendly to Murdoch — will take the final decision on the takeover.

Meanwhile, rumors that anybody and everybody is interested in the Premier League continue unabated. Companies that have been mentioned include Sony, Time Warner, TCI and Canal+, which holds the international rights to Premier League matches.

Fans are also making their voices heard. Tuesday, United fans held a protest rally in Manchester. Queen drummer and United supporter Roger Taylor donated $16,800 to the event.

The media is helping to fan the flames. The Mirror tabloid newspaper — a rival to Murdoch’s Sun — reported that BSkyB has bid $10.5 million to contract the Japanese player Hidetoshi Nakata to United without consulting the club. BSkyB dismissed the story as “completely untrue.”

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