If nothing else, Massimo Cellino’s singular blitz on Sky Sports’ right to broadcast has pushed the issue too far into the open for anyone to ignore.
Much of the dialogue between him and the Football League has been carried out in private but the threat to ban Sky from Elland Road on Tuesday was Cellino going as far as he could go.
Prior to that, the Football League left him to wage his war, batting away legal letters and refusing to respond to comments made publicly by him. His decision to cut Leeds United’s allocation of away tickets in October was of no real consequence and the club’s own support brought down that idea down in the space of a few days. But the prospect of Sky shut out of a game the company had paid to televise was something the Football League could not afford or tolerate.
There would have be repercussions for Leeds had Cellino stood his ground and he must have known that when he chose to up the ante before flying to Miami for Christmas. He will have taken that into consideration when he relented at late notice and opened the doors. Excluding Sky from Tuesday’s game against Derby County was a guaranteed breach of Football League rules and most likely a breach of the confidential broadcast deal agreed with Sky. The Football League won’t gamble that contract. It was described by Shaun Harvey as “hugely significant” when Sky finalised the terms in February. The League, all the same, is conflicted insofar as the crux of Cellino’s argument has support in Leeds. His methods for tackling the number of televised games imposed on United – 12 so far this season, leading to endless rearrangements – are questionable and when you pick as many fights as the Italian does then there is a risk of being seen as an habitual troublemaker, even on issues where he has a point.
But the chants against Sky during recent fixtures were not the result of the club’s fans following Cellino like sheep. He has some strong critics among them but on this front they share the view that the rescheduling of fixtures is thoughtlessly excessive.
Public frustration is largely one of logistics. Cellino’s complaint is more transparently financial: that live home games come at a cost to commercial revenue, despite the £100,000-plus broadcast fee which Sky pay, and naturally lower attendances. That view holds water but is also weakened by the fact that Leeds have been shown at Elland Road four times since July. The overall difference in crowds has also been negligible to the point of being insignificant. It is still true that matchday revenue drops when Sky roll up.
Cellino contends that in Italy, during his time as owner of Cagliari, he saw the negative, long-term impact of broadcasters who were able to pick and choose matches with freedom and impunity. That, too, is a different side of the debate to the perspective of Steve Evans, who thinks his squad are being hindered by unpredictable schedules.
In that respect Evans is not alone. On Monday night the Football League came in for criticism from Sheffield Wednesday’s Carlos Carvalhal for much the same reason. Carvalhal said Wednesday had asked the League to delay their televised trip to Middlesbrough after Boro’s Boxing Day fixture was postponed. According to him, the League insisted they could “do nothing” to help.
Part of the reason why Cellino’s lawyers wrote to the Football League earlier this year asking for a copy of the broadcast deal with Sky – a request which the League has not granted – was to try and establish exactly how much power Sky have been given. He wanted to know if there were limits to the number of times the company could televise an individual club or whether the company, in theory, were free to broadcast Leeds 46 times a season. There is no doubt that the broadcaster values the audience United attract. It is the only explanation for the constant coverage of a club who have been bottom-half in the Championship for most of the season. And it is clear that the movement of supporters, the complications with travel or attendance for the biggest away crowd in the division, do not come into it or not seriously enough.
None of this means that Cellino can have the deal entirely his own way. Sky pay in spades for broadcast rights and however much Leeds lose from televised matches at Elland Road, they earn millions of pounds from central revenue paid by the League and funded by the television contract. That cash is not being served up for nothing. The club have a large, wide-reaching support and the appetite for TV coverage is there. Leeds cannot expect to dictate terms to Sky and they cannot expect to negotiate terms individually but they can reasonably ask for more co-operation and consideration.
Carvalhal’s comments on Monday were particularly interesting. They made the point that other teams have concerns too, nuanced though those concerns might be. They made the point that if Leeds and Cellino were to take the time to canvass Championship clubs and test the water, they might actually garner wider support for their protest.
Incendiary acts have highlighted the subject but they won’t resolve it. United’s statement on Tuesday was more powerful than those; constructive and critical in the same breath. What is needed now is sensible dialogue between all sides in which Leeds accept that they are a big draw who Sky want to televise, Sky accept that their contract comes with a responsibility for even-handedness and the Football League mediates as opposed to sitting on the sidelines washing its hands. This dispute boils down to the ability of people to compromise. Which is why it might fester for some time yet.