Phil Hay: Leeds United friendly with Rams was an ill-conceived idea at the wrong time

THE relationship between Leeds United, Sky Sports and the Football League is at best an uneasy truce.

Thursday, 19th January 2017, 7:20 am
Updated Thursday, 19th January 2017, 7:26 am
Chris Wood scores against Derby County last week.

Competing interests are at the centre of it and as fixture changes run well into double figures again this season, the club are no closer to being persuaded that Sky’s contract works for them.

There are few subjects capable of drawing Garry Monk above the parapet so when the club’s head coach said his piece about the impact of live games on the club’s fixture list last week, you knew the issue was niggling him. For Monk, it is not about televised football per se but the effect of alterations on managers and players who have no say in the matter. Or to put it another way, it comes down to the ease with which two broadcasters can opt to squeeze an FA Cup tie and a significant Championship match into the space of four days.

BT Sport was as responsible for last week’s schedule as Sky but it is Sky’s broadcast deal with the Football League which clubs outside the Premier League are concentrating on and trying to unravel. It was opposition to Sky’s arrangement which led Derby to approach Leeds about the possibility of challenging it by staging an impromptu friendly at Pride Park in March. The idea sounded flawed from the start and it has blown itself out, as common sense said it would, but others will follow. Leeds and Derby are committed to proving that Sky’s £100million contract with the Football League pays less than it should or less than a different distributions of broadcast rights might.

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The League is aware of their stance but is yet to feel any serious pressure. The opposition to Sky’s contract has been undermined by the absence of good methods of threatening it. Massimo Cellino’s unilateral decision to take reduced allocations of away tickets during the 2015-16 fell foul of Leeds’ support long before rival clubs felt the pinch of falling income. His promise to shut Sky out of a game against Derby in December 2015 was a bluff which the Football League called. And the club’s attempt to use legal action to resist a televised date against Middlesbrough last February failed when the governing body served Cellino with an injunction. On all three occasions Leeds and Cellino found themselves backing down and left the Football League without a scratch, some poor publicity aside.

Now Derby’s proposal – using a friendly in the international break in March to show the revenue potential of matches screened outside the restrictions of Sky’s deal – has gone the same way, rejected by Leeds after several weeks of consideration. Leeds agreed to discuss the opportunity but were never sold on it and did not go so far as signing any documents.

Monk was consulted but could not see the benefit of sending a squad to Pride Park in between Championship games against Brighton on March 18 and Reading on April 1.

United’s new co-owner Andrea Radrizzani – a man whose entire career has been built on the distribution of sports broadcasting rights – was sceptical about what the friendly would prove. The idea went sideways after Derby’s Championship visit to Elland Road on Friday night.

County’s owner, Mel Morris, made his fortune through various online ventures, including the creation of the mobile game Candy Crush. According to those with knowledge of discussions between Derby and Leeds, he planned to stream March’s friendly for free but use advertising connections established through Candy Crush to generate enough money to support his view that Sky’s deal is limiting the earning power of individual clubs.

Someone stood to lose that argument and while Leeds remain broadly supportive of Morris’ criticism of the status quo, they were not convinced about the merits of this particular friendly.

At different junctures the issue of television rights has been discussed in the context of disruption for players and coaches and inconvenience for supporters. Leeds have seen 16 rearrangements already this season, 14 of those in the Championship. At the level where Leeds and Derby were talking it was solely about money but the concept of a friendly in March was riddled with complications. Financially, it had to perform well and would only have done so had Monk and Steve McClaren been willing to field recognisable teams. The motivation on their part for fielding recognisable teams in a kick-around six weeks before the end of the season, risking injuries and fatigue, must have been nil. “It’s to our detriment,” Monk said last week, criticising the constant changes to United’s schedule. It is hard to think of a better way of describing an ill-conceived friendly at the height of the Championship year.