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EU calls time on BSkyB soccer deal

Satcaster aiming to maintain monopoly

LONDON — Is paybox British Sky Broadcasting’s 13-year exclusive hold over the most valuable soccer rights in Europe about to end? Or will the Rupert Murdoch-backed satcaster again outwit European Union bureaucrats and outbid rivals.

So far, the score is 1-0 to BSkyB.

The EU tried to break BSkyB’s monopoly over soccer — its main subscription driver since 1992 — three years ago by forcing the English Football League to sell its rights to Premier League soccer games in four packages.

The deep-pocketed satcaster simply bought them all for a stunning £340 million ($612 million) a year.

That deal ends next year — and the EU is ready for a rematch.

Last week, the Premier League met members of the European Commission in an attempt to reach agreement over Brussels’ desire to ensure that at least two British broadcasters “obtain a viable and meaningful share of live match rights.”

EC officials warned that unless the league gave ground, legal action would ensue. A showdown appears to have been averted, as league CEO Richard Scudamore said the two sides were “closer to an amicable result.”

As Variety went to press, no details of the deal were available, but British newspaper the Guardian suggests the latest proposal involves selling the matches in five packages of 28 games each season, with no broadcaster able to win more than four packages.

But with BSkyB forking out between $3.6 million to $5.4 million per game, it is hard to see how any terrestrial U.K. web alone could match, let alone top, coin of this order.

This is creating some interesting partnerships.

Cable combo NTL, which recently announced it will merge with Telewest, has gotten into bed with terrestrial web ITV in an attempt to wrestle away rights to half the games.

The BBC and Five, the British terrestrial web owned by pan-European broadcaster RTL, also are said to be interested in bidding for matches, as are British Telecom and Irish-based sports specialist Setanta.

Another intriguing possibility is a tie-up between BSkyB and Five.

Sky News provides Five’s news service, and the two recently struck a deal to share coverage of cricket. Asked about such a possibility, Five’s program topper, Dan Chambers, remains tight-lipped.

Provided the EU does not start legal proceedings against the league, bidding is likely to begin next spring, with a result expected by the end of the summer.

Despite the tough talk from Brussels, it is hard to see BSkyB not controlling the lion’s share of games when the next TV contracts are sealed.

A BSkyB spokesman would only say: “Sky expects to make a competitive bid.”

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