Chief football writer Phil Hay looks at the implications of Sky TV choosing to reschedule yet another Leeds United match for broadcast at short notice.
Massimo Cellino’s motivation for requesting a copy of the broadcast deal between the Football League and Sky Sports was to establish the limits of Sky’s control. The League is unwilling to give him sight of it but to judge by the delayed rearrangement of Leeds United’s game against Middlesbrough, the answer seems obvious.
Back in December, around the time when Sky moved Leeds’ forthcoming trip to Brighton to a Monday night, United were told that the broadcaster wanted to do the same with their clash against Boro.
The club objected to that change and thought Sky would leave the fixture alone, particularly when a tranche of live games were announced at the start of this month. But on Tuesday, with less than four weeks’ notice, Boro’s visit to Elland Road switched to Monday, February 15.
In response to an angry public reaction, the Football League laid the blame at United’s door, saying Leeds knew of the proposed change before Christmas but stopped Sky from confirming the new broadcast date by mounting legal action. Leeds are yet to respond but the move is another red rag to Cellino who has fought the League over the issue of fixture disruption all season.
United’s owner backed down from a threat to ban Sky from televising Leeds’ 2-2 draw with Derby County on December 29 but warned that the firm would not be granted entry to Elland Road again. Cellino claims Leeds incur a financial loss from televised home games due to falling commercial revenue, despite receiving a match fee of more than £100,000. United as a club are unhappy with what they call an “entirely disproportionate” number of appearances on Sky.
The last-minute change of the meeting with Boro, however, is most unpalatable for Leeds’ supporters. More than 100 fans in Scandinavia were booked to fly over for the initial date of Saturday, February 13. A large number in Northern and southern Ireland will also be affected, beyond the inconvenience caused to those based domestically. The Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST) called for fans to boycott both the Boro fixture and Sky’s broadcast in protest at what it said was a rearrangement made at “obscenely short notice.”
Svend Karlsen, a member of the Leeds United Supporters Club of Scandinavia (LUSCOS), said he was aware of around 120 Norwegian fans who would be affected by the change. “That goes from small groups to groups of about 50 or 60,” he said. “People book for several days in Leeds and if it’s an early kick-off on a Saturday or early on a Sunday, that’s okay. But Monday night is much worse. Impossible for some people.
“We’re always sceptical of the TV schedule so you wait as long as possible to book. Most people waited until after Christmas so that they wouldn’t fall into the trap but we saw some live games announced a few weeks ago, games further in time (later in the season) than this one.
“This is the most angry I’ve seen people in the context of this problem. It’s an especially short period of notice. I’m not just speaking from a Norwegian perspective.
I know that many in Ireland and other parts of Europe will be affected too. I don’t think they (Sky or the Football League) have us at the top of their list. I don’t think they think about the fans. The biggest discussion point here is what’s in the contract with Sky? Does the Football League have limits on what Sky can do? They have a moral responsibility to look after the fans.”
Sky has refused to comment on the latest rearrangement, the 13th Leeds fixture selected for live coverage this season, but in a statement the Football League said: “It is a matter of regret to the Football League that supporters of Leeds United and Middlesbrough have only been informed of the new date for this match at such a late stage.
“Like other matches being broadcast during February, this game was originally selected for transmission by Sky Sports in early December with home clubs asked to make the necessary arrangements at the time.
“However, as was referenced by Leeds United in its statement of December 29, the club has challenged the League ‘through the appropriate legal routes’ which has prevented confirmation of the date of this fixture until now.
“Due to ongoing legal restrictions the League cannot comment further at this time.”
The League did not respond to questions about whether Sky’s confidential contract requires them to announce a live game a set period in advance. The YEP has been told that local police expect no less than three weeks’ notice for a rearranged fixture.
Both Leeds and Boro believed they were effectively powerless to prevent Sky from enforcing a Monday night game.
A spokesman for the Leeds United Supporters Trust said: “The Trust is calling for all Leeds United fans to come together for a fans’ boycott of the re-arranged home game versus Middlesbrough and the live broadcast.
“By moving the fixture at obscenely short notice, the Football League and Sky TV have once more illustrated where fans rate on the footballing scale of decision-making – at the very bottom.
“These custodians of game are allegedly tasked with protecting its integrity yet have moved the match with no thought for the game’s lifeblood, match-going supporters.
“Football fans plan their lives around the league calendar and Leeds United is an internationally supported club. The Trust has been made aware of inconvenienced supporters from casual match-day goers resident in the city, through London-based season ticket holders unable to attend, to a group of 95 Norwegian fans whose pre-arranged return flight for the Saturday fixture departs on Monday afternoon.
“We are aware that Middlesbrough fans have similar stories. Who will compensate inconvenienced fans? The answer is, of course, depressingly familiar – no one.”
Cellino said on Monday night that he was consulting his lawyers amid signs that Sky and the Football League were preparing to shift the clash with Boro. The Italian has twice taken drastic steps in protest against fixture disruption, cutting United’s allocations of tickets for away games to 2,000 in October – a policy he quickly abandoned – and obstructing Sky’s entry to the clash with Derby on December 29.
That fixture was staged at 7.45pm on a Tuesday night after Sky chose to move Leeds’ Boxing Day match at Nottingham Forest. Cellino had flown to Miami for Christmas but left behind instructions for Sky’s staff to be barred from the stadium when they arrived to set up for a live broadcast.
Sky were initially refused entry on the Monday afternoon and United forced their employees to sit in Fullarton Park car park until around 3pm the following day. Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey travelled to Leeds and spent several hours trying to settle the dispute. Cellino relented after the League threatened United with a misconduct charge which would carry “a full range of sanctions”, among them the possibility of a points deduction.
Cellino opened the doors around 3pm but Leeds published a choice statement on their official website, expressing their frustration.
The statement read: “The Football League regulations are supposed to be there to protect the integrity of the sporting competition, not to be used as a stick to beat the club on behalf of Sky.
“Leeds United season ticket holders have had enough of these fixture changes, the players and staff have had enough, and Leeds United Football Club has had enough.
“It is to be noted that the League threaten a disrepute charge against the club. It is the League who are bringing their own competition into disrepute by unfairly prejudicing Leeds (and certain other clubs) by allowing Sky to unfairly disrupt Leeds United for their own commercial purposes.”
Leeds have never acknowledged the rearrangement of their game at Brighton from Saturday, February 27 to Monday, February 29, a change made a month ago. Staff at Elland Road are understood to have been told not to give the broadcast publicity.