BSkyB nabs stake in soccer strategy

B'caster to be on board, act as media agent

LONDON — British Sky Broadcasting is buying 9% of Leeds Sporting, the parent of Leeds United soccer club, for £13.8 million ($22 million), part of a larger strategy to increase the satcaster’s sway over English Premier League soccer.

The broadcasting rights to the league are the crown jewels of BSkyB’s programming, but the rights expire in 2001. Competition for the next contract is expected to be fierce.

The News Corp.-controlled BSkyB already owned about 11% of Manchester United, the legacy of its blocked $1 billion attempt to acquire the club, the most important team in the league.

That stake will be reduced to no more than 9.9%, the most a media company can hold in a single club if it has shares in more than one. The satcaster has intimated that it is looking to pick up stakes in additional clubs.

BSkyB will have a seat on Leeds’ board and act as the company’s media agent for the next five years — except in negotiations that must be handled collectively by the league’s 20 clubs, such as those for the post-2001 TV contract.

Other bidders

There had been speculation that ITV network company Granada Group — which recently bought 9.9% of Liverpool’s soccer team for $32 million — was interested in Leeds.

Granada co-owns ONdigital, the rival to BSkyB’s SkyDigital platform, with fellow ITV company Carlton Communications. ITV has indicated it intends to bid for the Premier League next time around. It already has the rights to the UEFA Champions League, the pan-European soccer league.

For its part, NTL, the U.K.’s No. 1 cabler, has a 6.3% stake in Newcastle United and is understood to have held talks with other clubs. NTL has just begun rolling out its digital platform.