Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Do we care?

One of the oddest things I found in the United States is that Americans actually follow British soccer football, though they rarely play it. Mysteriously, American boys do not kick a ball around. Given a ball and some space they shoot hoops. This, in my opinion, is counter-indicative of normal male behaviour. To make up for it, they are just as obsessive about wheels as their counterparts on other continents.

However, they do watch the game on TV, often having to pay for a special cable channel to do so. (Oh yes, dear supporters of the BBC licence, people will pay if they really like something. You don’t need to rely on a tithe.)

The team many of them like is Manchester United. Even more of them have heard of it and it is quite difficult to explain that not everyone supports that team and many who do are not your average football fans.

So I was not at all surprised to hear that Malcolm Glazer decided to spend many millions of dollars to buy the club. (I was once given a free drink by a barman in an uptown bar in New York because he liked my British accent, being a fan of the Her Majesty the Queen and ManUnited.)

Still a drink is one thing but £540 million or more is something else. Mr Glazer would like to recoup the money and raise the club’s revenue. What better way of doing it than through TV broadcasting rights?

United, after all, earned £31.7 million from the Premier League last season, of which £30.1 million came directly from TV money and the remainder from sponsorship and licensing.

It is assumed that the team could double its income from TV money at least. But it would have to negotiate and sign its own contracts, an idea that Mr Glazer clearly favours.

At present, the 19 Premier League clubs negotiate collectively on domestic and international rights. Mr Glazer has clearly thought of challenging this arrangement in the European courts, relying on free market arguments. The poor sap seems to have believed that the EU was about free market.

He was speedily put right on that. The Commission has announced that it will not support his bid. They have no problem, they announced grandly and not unpredictably, with collective bargaining. It is broadcasting monopoly they are worried about.

Manchester United fans or, at least, their various organizations have been opposed to the Glazer take-over, though what their preferred alternative is remains unclear. They may yet get their wish.

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