Leeds United: Big-hitters’ rumble in the TV broadcast jungle

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As the EFL ratified its broadcast deal with Sky Sports ‘in the overall best interests of the EFL’, dissenters, including Leeds United, were merely acknowledged. Phil Hay reckons this wrangle is set to rumble on.

The statement confirming the agreement of a new broadcast deal between the EFL and Sky Sports could not avoid mentioning the noses it was putting out of joint. At the same time as championing an arrangement which was “in the overall best interests of the EFL”, the governing body accepted that it had taken the offer in the face of opposition from some of its more powerful members.

Andrea Radrizzani

Andrea Radrizzani

Debbie Jevans, the EFL’s interim chairperson, touched on “comments and frustrations” faced by the organisation and made a promise to rethink the way in which future negotiations were handled. The statement said the EFL’s board had digested complaints by a number of Championship clubs before deciding to take Sky’s £595m, five-year bid. “The deal has been designed to maximise both the financial return and exposure for all 72 member clubs, the EFL and its competitions,” it concluded.

If the intention was to be conciliatory, the announcement on Monday night had the opposite effect. Championship teams opposed to Sky’s contract arranged to meet in Birmingham the following day and plan their response to a deal which the majority were pushing the EFL to renegotiate or reject. Not every side in the division is unhappy with the deal, and many in Leagues One and Two support it, but the weight of anger amongst key EFL players raised the threat of a fresh attempt to bring it down.

Sky’s offer is an increase of 35 per cent on its existing contract, which is due to be replaced at the start of next season. Annual payments to the EFL will rise from £90m to £119m in return for the rights to 138 live matches, including 16 midweek Championship fixtures. An additional eight from that division will be broadcast simultaneously on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings through the red-button service introduced by Sky in September.

The terms of the proposal attracted criticism from the Championship at an early stage and officials from clubs in the league have met regularly over the past month amid growing frustration. Andrea Radrizzani, Leeds United’s majority shareholder, spoke in person at one of the gatherings last week and Angus Kinnear, the club’s managing director, attended yesterday’s summit in Birmingham. Leeds, as the most televised club in the EFL, have been at the forefront of attempts to force a delay in signing Sky’s contract and bring about further negotiations.

Debbie Jevans

Debbie Jevans

Criticism of the agreement is varied and differs from club to club. There is dissatisfaction with the red-button service, which has allowed Sky to increase the number of midweek Championship matches it televises in return for no significant revenue. Teams in the league feel they are being asked to accept more live games for less money per appearance. Others expect matchday earnings from other revenue sources, including live streaming, to suffer as a result.

There is a sense too that Championship rights should be worth more to individual clubs than the £3m per year they will receive from Sky’s new deal. That figure does not include additional fees paid for live matches and Leeds’ most recent accounts set their annual earnings from TV payments and other central distributions at £7.5m but Championship executives are increasingly aware of the huge disparity between broadcast cash in the Premier League and the price paid for rights in the EFL. The Premier League’s latest three-year deal with Sky and BT Sport, starting next August, is worth £4.55bn, excluding a small batch of games purchased by Amazon. The last set of accounts published by West Bromwich Albion prior to their relegation to the Championship declared “media related income” as almost £119m.

Sky once controlled Premier League football exclusively but England’s top flight has used the sale of rights in fragments – batches of fixtures which are auctioned separately – to maximise its income. The EFL, in contrast, has negotiated a collective deal with one broadcaster, on terms which run to 2024. Certain Championship owners, including Radrizzani, think the fragmentation of EFL rights would prove more lucrative. Some believe a five-year contract with Sky is excessively long at a time when the TV market is changing rapidly. Already this year, Radrizzani’s online broadcast outlet Eleven Sports has picked up the UK and Irish rights to Serie A and La Liga from BT Sport and Sky and Amazon is about to enter the Premier League ring for the first time. The EFL claims a five-year cycle will let clubs develop their own digital offerings to a standard which allows for an “alternative approach” when the rights are next sold in 2024.

The EFL maintained throughout that Sky’s bid was the only realistic option available to it and the concerns of many Championship sides are not shared lower down the pyramid. Leeds and others, including Aston Villa and Derby County, have been accused of allowing greed to drive their resistance, though the clubs leading the challenge to Sky’s improved contract claim they could construct a different strategy which benefits all 72 clubs.

TV cameraman

TV cameraman

It is only a couple of months since Radrizzani discussed the need for a ‘Premier League 2’ to help clubs in the Championship remain financially viable as they chase a place in the Premier League but the idea of unhappy teams moving to break away from the EFL does not appear to have anything like the support it would need and the focus at yesterday’s meeting was on the possibility that legal action or the EFL’s own rules might yet obstruct the agreement with Sky. This bitter wrangle is not over yet.