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Italo scandal shakes up TV soccer rights

Tribunal's verdict to be announced early this week

ROME — As Italy’s national soccer team was winning the World Cup in Germany, a tribunal convened by the Italian Football Federation was probing a match-fixing scandal that has rocked the national league.

And its results will have a profound effect on how TV sports rights are sold here.

The scandal surfaced in May when newspapers published prosecution wiretaps of phone conversations revealing a referee-rigging ring headed by Luciano Moggi (aka Lucky Luciano), then general manager of Serie A champion club Juventus.

The fixing allegedly benefited Juventus, A.C. Milan (owned by Silvio Berlusconi), Lazio and Fiorentina during the 2004-05 season.

All were said to be involved in a network of corrupt coaches, team owners, league officials and TV journalists on the take. No players have been implicated.

Soccer talkshow host Aldo Biscardi, a fixture with fans for 26 years, has resigned from web La7 after it emerged that Moggi influenced the lineup of his guests and held sway over which matches were analyzed and how.

The Juventus boss, who has also resigned, even tampered with the results of viewer call-in polls.

But a few anklings are nothing compared with what lies ahead, when the tribunal’s verdict is announced early this week.

Juventus, which contributed six players to the cup-winning squad, including team captain Fabio Cannavaro, is likely to be demoted to a minor league, probably the Serie C, while the others will receive similar punishment.

While Juventus officials have admitted some wrongdoing, execs at the other clubs maintain their innocence.

Soccer is a massive industry in Italy, estimated to be worth $6 billion a year. Many top clubs, including Juventus, Milan and Lazio, are publicly listed on the Milan Bourse, which makes them heavily dependent on TV rights coin; it currently accounts for between 50% and 80% of their revenue.

That is a higher percentage than in any other European country, according to the Italian Sports Ministry.

Berlusconi’s Mediaset, which has been aggressively snapping up soccer rights since launching a digital-terrestrial pay-per-view scheme last year, recently shelled out a whopping E218 million ($277 million) to Juventus in a two-season deal starting in 2007. It is now uncertain whether the club, reverentially known as the “Old Lady” of Italian soccer, will even be playing in the Serie A.

Mediaset executive VP Piersilvio Berlusconi says he will renegotiate its soccer deals. “The company needs to ensure that it won’t incur any financial damages from the scandal,” a combative Berlusconi Jr. said presenting the web’s fall season on July 11.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia, the country’s single satellite paybox, for which soccer is a huge driver, is more diplomatic but equally determined not to take a loss.

“We are waiting for the verdicts,” said a Sky Italia spokesman. “Any contract is renegotiable if the goods depreciate.”

Meanwhile, the government is drafting a law to introduce a collective revenue-sharing and salary cap mechanism similar to those in effect in U.S. sports leagues, such as the NFL. This would prevent bigger teams, like Juventus, from cutting individual rights deals and reaping the lion’s share of TV coin, which many claim was at the root of the rot.

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