Rupe score on hold

Higher bid for U.K. soccer team reported

LONDON — Rupert Murdoch’s $1.04 billion bid for the Manchester United soccer club may still fall short of being signed, sealed and delivered.

The U.S. bank Salomon Smith Barney says it has been asked by an unnamed American bidder to initiate talks with Man U’s financial advisers, HSBC Holdings.

The Sunday Telegraph newspaper said Sunday the “mystery bidder” is set to offer $1.18 billion for the club.

Manchester United’s board of directors has indicated it is legally bound to consider any bid higher than that of Murdoch, who has approached Man U through the News Corp.-controlled satcaster BSkyB, holder of the TV rights to the English Premier League, in which Man U is the most important team.

Man U chairman Martin Edwards told BBC radio Sunday morning that Murdoch’s approach was not yet a “done deal.”

To complicate matters, the club’s board of directors has agreed to sell its 17% stake in Man U to BSkyB. Also, the satcaster on Thursday acquired 9% of the publicly listed club’s shares on the stock market.

It emerged a week ago that BSkyB was in talks with Man U. By Tuesday night, Murdoch’s bid, sweetened by $81 million from the original $960 million, had been accepted by Manchester U’s board.

Sony, though, may now be contemplating a $371 million bid for Newcastle United. It is also rumored that the leisure group Enic — in partnership with the media group United News & Media, and with the backing of Time Warner — could bid for the London club Tottenham Hotspurs.

This follows the admission last week from the ITV network company Carlton that it is in talks with the London club Arsenal.

The other big ITV company, Granada, is also said to be casting its net for a suitable fish.

What is at stake is the TV rights to lucrative Premier League matches, which BSkyB holds until the 2001-2002 season.

BSkyB is looking for insurance for the next time it must negotiate the rights to soccer, arguably its key subscription driver.

Carlton and Granada are partnered in British Digital Broadcasting, the digital terrestrial rival to BSkyB’s Sky Digital platform. BDB is skedded to launch in November, soon after the launch of Sky Digital.

Acquiring a Premier League team could mean at least some soccer matches will be available to BDB subscribers.

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