OFT Premiership defeat kicks choice into touch

Consumers want freedom of choice, not dictated viewing patterns. This should have guided the OFT, not media pressure, believes Mike Gorman.

I have not read the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report in detail, which caused it to lose a case in the restrictive practices court for the first time in recent history. For me, like many others, full details of the 190-page report by Mr Justice Ferris, will remain a closed book, but I was interested in the case put forward by both parties.

I understand why the OFT thought it was against the public interest to allow the Premier League to sell the rights to its football matches collectively. Of course the viewing public is not able to watch every Premiership match. But is that what it wants?

BSkyB broadcasts 60 live games. The audience figures range from more than 2.6 million for games featuring Manchester United to fewer than 700,000, for less glamourous Premiership sides.

Had the OFT looked at the stark reality of those figures, it could have saved itself the &£30m it took to prepare the case. There are too many live games – of the wrong sort. The case should have been about choice, but was derailed by anti-competitive funk.

What is needed is the freedom to choose the games we see and not be fed a “lucky bag” by Sky – such as, Manchester United v Arsenal one game and Everton v Coventry the next. BSkyB has the supply, but an analysis of the demand would have shown that something is wrong with the current arrangement. That should have been the basis of the case.

Whose interests was Mr Justice Ferris protecting in the ruling? Not football fans at large. The only winners were Sky, the BBC and an antiquated League structure which has too many clubs. The Premier League contains clubs whose bank balances and ambitions do not match, many of which are propped up by the earning capacity of the few.

The judgment sought to protect some sense of fairness in the distribution of wealth that accrues to Premiership teams. The argument goes that if distribution of wealth is controlled, then the average team life will be prolonged and fans of those clubs will be protected.

This deviates from the issue of TV rights for the masses, not the rights of anorak-wearing football supporters associations. The case came down to a method of ensuring that the &£743m, which the Premiership receives from TV, is fairly distributed among the League’s clubs. Perish the thought that the best, most popular and most marketed should become any richer.

In taking its eye off the ball, and being jostled by the media, the OFT missed an opportunity to give fans real choice. Of course that choice would come at a price. More set-top boxes, more pay-per-view, more subscription channels. But that is the price of choice.

Mike Gorman is media director for Bozell Worldwide

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