A nice, if dreamy, Coca-Cola ad once asked: ’If fans could be
transferred, how much would you be worth?’ This week, collectively at
any rate, we know what Manchester United fans are worth: pounds 575
The point, however, is that unlike players, fans cannot be bought and
sold. This point, somewhat perversely I think, is one that Rupert
Murdoch and Sky have grasped, and one their critics haven’t. For all
their fury at the Manchester United board, for all their accusations of
a sell-out, Murdoch knows that the fans simply won’t desert the club.
Look at Spurs and Newcastle. Fans may loathe the people who run the
clubs; they may despair of their form. But they’re still fans deep down
and they just need the excuse to love their team again.
That is one aspect of the deal. The one that gets to the heart of the
matter, however, is the media question. I mean this partly in the sense
of TV rights, but equally in the sense that Manchester United is a media
Put it this way. In the way that it packages an audience and delivers it
to advertisers, Manchester United is a media brand - like Sky itself,
like the Sun, like Capital and so on. The fact that it does this through
football is practically incidental.
If you take this view, then it is entirely logical that a media owner
like Murdoch should wish to add another media property to his stable -
just like he might buy another newspaper or a radio station.
The question then is whether a football club is just another asset which
can be freely bought and sold at the owner’s will or whether, like
newspapers, some greater public interest test ought to apply. The
current regulatory climate suggests the former (and let’s not forget
that Sky is not the first media owner to buy a football club: Robert
Maxwell owned Derby, the Sport’s David Sullivan owns Birmingham and the
Chrysalis/Heart FM boss, Chris Wright, owns QPR).
While you can’t compare ownership of a football club with a newspaper in
terms of the public interest, the inevitability of pay-per-view means
that millions of ordinary consumers have, or will have, an interest in
the way football clubs are controlled. So, too, given the weight of
money that chases the game, do advertisers.
The question then becomes, is either of these two groups open to unfair
exploitation by a Sky-owned United? The fans clearly are but, as the
evidence shows, they’ll put up with it. As for advertisers, they may not
like it, but they have the choice to take their money elsewhere.
Like many, I find the thought of a Sky-owned Manchester United
But it’s not illegal, immoral or, since there’s nothing to stop Carlton,
Granada or United News from buying its own club, particularly
anti-competitive. The deal should therefore go ahead.