Campaign suggested mischievously this summer that it might not be
inconceivable for, say, Interpublic to buy Manchester United. Of course,
the choice of Interpublic was purely hypothetical, with nothing more
tangible than Frank Lowe’s support for the club to go on - plus the fact
that Rupert Murdoch had bought the LA Dodgers and New York Knicks, Canal
Plus owned Paris St Germain and Silvio Berlusconi controlled AC
Now, Murdoch has once again outwitted his rivals to emerge as United’s
likely buyer for the extraordinary figure of pounds 575 million. It’s a
monster he did as much as the club itself to create. Only nine years
ago, United’s boss, Martin Edwards, couldn’t sell to Michael Knighton
for pounds 20 million.
Instead, United floated for pounds 47 million in 1991. That was before
its incredible run of success and, crucially, the launch of the Premier
League in 1992.
Sky’s buying of the rights to the Premier League transformed the game,
pumping into it the money that funded the rebuilding of stadia demanded
by the Taylor report, and the extraordinary influx of foreign
Murdoch’s cross-media promotion created the football hype. It led to
special sections in the papers, the rush by other channels to televise
even minor pre-season friendlies, and just the opposite of the dire
warnings of empty stadia that preceded the advent of live coverage.
Has it been good for advertisers? Of course. Not the least because
football established Sky in Britain’s TV landscape. Sky football
provided a value-for-money way of reaching young male viewers.
Despite this, its ratings are often no more than one-sixth of Match of
the Day’s. But archaic measurement systems do not record the high
proportion of fans watching on screens in pubs. Regardless, Sky viewers
are more clearly definable. Agencies that lambast Sky’s figures appear
stuck in the volume trap.
Of course, Murdoch wishes to buy Manchester United to safeguard live
football rights (domestic or, in future, European). But will he run
Manchester United any worse than the incompetents who run some of our
Somehow, despite all the money pouring in, many still manage to make a
That said, control of Manchester United would give Murdoch effective
control of the league. The club is as big as Juventus and Inter Milan
combined. The game will be run better as a business and offer more to
the commercial world.
However, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether one man should be allowed
to have such control and whether the game will be run better for
ordinary fans (whoever they may be). Ultimately, if the game isn’t run
for fans then isn’t that bad business? One thing is sure: Murdoch has
opened the floodgates.
Next: M&C Saatchi fights Carlton for Arsenal.
Thirty years ago such a deal would have been unimaginable. Yet the
notion that nothing’s changed in the UK ad business in that period has
become commonplace. Is this really true? Well, next week is Campaign’s
Judge for yourself with our special 176-page commemorative issue.