PERSPECTIVE: Stakes are raised in battle to secure TV sports content

The flags are out at Elland Road and Leeds fans are no doubt rubbing their hands at the prospect of being able to afford at least one decent striker.

The flags are out at Elland Road and Leeds fans are no doubt

rubbing their hands at the prospect of being able to afford at least one

decent striker.

After all, pounds 13.8 million can still buy you a nifty right foot,

even these days, and if you have to sup with the devil to do it, well at

least you might stand a chance of winning something with the Murdoch

shilling in your back pocket.

Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB has just bought a 9 per cent stake in Leeds

Sporting to add to its stake in Manchester United. But Murdoch was not

the only pariah eyeing Leeds shares.

Granada, which recently bought a 9.9 per cent stake in Liverpool, is

thought to have been one of the interested parties, while Carlton,

United News & Media and NTL are also sniffing around the footie scene

and Spurs, Aston Villa, Southampton, Sunderland and Chelsea are now

among the choicest clubs ripe for a deal. Football, it seems, has become

the game to be in.

But it’s not immediately obvious what media companies have to gain from

the sort of minority-stake deals which have become fashionable. One

insider joked recently that Granada will make more money out of the

catering opportunities arising from its stake in Liverpool FC than from

any TV association.

Financially that may be the case in the short term, but there’s no doubt

that getting a seat at the table will give media companies a real inside

track into rights negotiations for those games not dealt with

collectively by the Premier League. And the future of that collective

bargaining is far from certain.

Of course, this is the nub of BSkyB’s interest. If Sky fails to secure

Premier League rights in the next round of negotiations, its positioning

as the home of football will be shot to pieces. Sky paid a 22 per cent

premium on Leeds shares for the stake, which, as the FT’s Lex column

pointed out last week, ’is an expensive way for Sky to go about securing

options on content’. But if there’s any universal takeout from the

scramble for football deals, it’s this idea of ownership of content.

Any flick round your satellite dial will tell you that there are now too

many channels and not enough good programming to go round. And

spiralling bidding wars for both sporting and creative talent have

become a fact of life for broadcasters.

Sky’s football manoeuvres may seem defensive but they are a recognition

of the fact that now, more than ever, content is king. Without

high-profile events or talent to drive appointment-to-view programming,

TV channels are in danger of being lost in a melange of pap. If the

Premier League rights go elsewhere, Sky has at least a chance of

offering football that many fans will fight to see, and in the

competitive world of multi-channel TV, that’s worth pounds 14 million of

any broadcaster’s money.