ANALYSIS: COMMENT - United’s fans have to swallow sale of great media asset

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 million.

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

million.



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

brand.



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

unsavoury.



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.



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