When the Premier League was formed in 1992, it negotiated a
television package on behalf of its 20 members, giving BSkyB ’live and
exclusive’ coverage of football matches and the BBC’s Match of The Day
sole rights to recorded highlights.
In 1996, when the Premiership renewed this joint deal until 2001 for
pounds 743 million, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) stepped in. It
argued that by selling collectively through the Premier League, clubs
were acting as an unlawful cartel and the exclusive nature of TV
contracts was against the public interest. On 12 January 1999, the OFT
presented its case to the Restrictive Practices Court.
Within the restraints of an ongoing legal case, the Premier League’s
retained agency Westminster Strategy (WS) wanted to provide public
pressure to demonstrate that the OFT was wrong in its accusations of an
anti-competitive monopoly and quash any rulings against current TV
Strategy and Plan
In principal, the OFT had a fair case. The Premiership clubs were able
to flex their collective muscle to limit Sky from screening more than 60
of the football season’s 380 Premier League games and limit highlights
to the BBC only.
However, WS wanted to highlight that while the 1976 Restrictive Trade
Practices Act under which the case was brought could be applied to
business, the legislation did not fit the more complicated situation of
the nation’s favourite sport.
From December, WS outlined to journalists that if, as the OFT wanted,
each football club individually negotiated TV rights, there would be
chaos with clashing interests and timings. In addition, teams such as
Coventry and Wimbledon, which have relatively low fan bases, would be
left out in the cold, while the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal
would become even more financially dominant. Also discussed was the
limiting of live match coverage to protect live attendance of games and
the pounds 17.5 million of TV money a year which goes to support the
game outside the Premiership.
Of course, the PR team was unable to influence matters in the court
room, but in the course of the 47-day trial, they kept opinion-formers
and politicians up to speed. WS provided guidance on the arguments
supporting the Premiership’s position and notified the media of the
appearance of high profile witnesses, such as Chelsea FC chairman Ken
Measurement and Evaluation
The ultimate yardstick for measuring this campaign was whether the OFT’s
case fell apart in court. However, the matter received considerable
media coverage from business, media and sports journalists. Radio 5 Live
in particular dedicated much air time to examining how the Premier
League’s current arrangements benefited all concerned, from fans to
grassroots football facilities.
In addition, Westminster Strategy gained the public support of bodies
including the Football League, the Professional Footballers’ Association
and the various FA supporters’ groups.
On 28 July, Mr Justice Ferris ruled that the current five-year deal
between the Premier League and BSkyB, plus the BBC should be upheld.
This was the first time the OFT had lost a case in the Restrictive
Practices Court in recent times and a coup for the Premiership’s legal
team organised by Denton Hall.
Westminster Strategy worked closely with the lawyers to put together a
very successful public affairs and media campaign.
Client: The FA Carling Premiership
PR Team: Westminster Strategy
Campaign: Defence of the Premier League’s TV contracts with BSkyB and
Timescale: December 1998 to July 1999