Previous SectionIndexHome Page

26 Apr 2001 : Column 542

Football World Cup (Television Coverage)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Pearson.]

6.57 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): During the last football World cup in 1998, there was an average of 600 million viewers worldwide per match, with a total of 37 billion viewers worldwide for the tournament. In Bayswater, where I rent my London flat, a multitude of restaurants serve cuisine from all around the globe, encompassing every taste from Spanish to Brazilian to Japanese to Iranian. During the 1998 finals, every one of them seemed to have installed one or two ordinary television sets for the month of the tournament to cheer on the wide variety of teams of their choice and to animate their customers evenings.

FIFA is the custodian of this great international tradition. However, two years before the France 1998 World cup, on 5 July 1996, FIFA brought shame upon that tradition and upon themselves when its executive, by nine votes to six, with three abstentions, voted to sell the European television rights to the 2002 and 2006 tournaments to the German media entrepreneur Kirch and the worldwide rights to his associates, ISL. It stipulated only that the final, semi-finals and any match featuring the national team should be on terrestrial television. The other 50 to 60 matches could be sold off to subscription television.

The press release subsequently issued by Kirch's agents, Prisma, is remarkable in that it begins with a couple of paragraphs praising the impact of the coverage of past tournaments on terrestrial television. It said:

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Mr. Grogan: The press release continues:

The release has a cynical punch line, however. It states:

There is no mention of fans or viewers. The key word in the press release is "broadcasters". By its own admission, FIFA was prepared to sell out billions of ordinary viewers to court a handful of subscription television companies, whose agenda was clear.

That action is in sharp contrast to that taken by the International Olympic Committee, which has adopted a principle of making the summer and winter Olympic

26 Apr 2001 : Column 543

games as widely available as possible. It also contrasts with the decision of UEFA, which has sold on the rights to the next two European football championships, beginning with the 2004 tournament in Portugal, to the European Broadcasting Union. That will ensure that everyone with a basic television--young or old, rich or poor, in Manchester, Munich or Milan--will be able to see all the action.

It is worth remembering that, in recent months, FIFA officials have been courting Europe's political leaders on other matters, such as help over transfer fees. Millions of pounds of public and lottery money throughout Europe goes into building football stadiums. Would not it be timely for European Governments or the European Parliament to suggest to FIFA that it might be in its own long-term interests to show a more responsible attitude when it gets around to considering future broadcasting rights?

Fortunately, the United Kingdom has a long tradition--going back to the Eden Administration in the 1950s--of protecting for the nation the broadcasting of the crown jewels of sport. That relatively modest intervention in the market is designed to ensure that we can all enjoy and share in the great sporting events of national or international importance. It allows us to experience the tension and excitement together, and to be part, for a little while, of something bigger. It means that we can all, in some way, be in the ground or stadium where an event is taking place.

If the great sporting occasions were not free to all, that feeling--that frisson--would be lost. Many people would merely hear the cheers coming over the wall, and for the majority the result might well mean exclusion from the stadium altogether. Among the people so excluded might be the children who could grow up to be tomorrow's stars.

The precise list of the crown jewel sporting events to be protected has been amended and reviewed down the years. The entire football World cup finals tournament has been listed since at least the prime of Baroness Thatcher in the 1980s. In 1997, the new Government instituted a review of the listed events and set up a committee under Lord Gordon. That committee suggested delisting the bulk of the World cup finals tournaments. In my opinion, it badly misjudged public and parliamentary opinion. The 1998 tournament reminded us all of the thrill and joy of watching teams such as Brazil and Cameroon, regardless of who they were playing against. It also reminded us that, despite Lord Tebbit's cricket test, many British citizens, as well as keeping an eye on England's fortunes, wanted to check on Jamaica, which was making its first appearance in the World cup finals.

Wisely, Parliament decided to maintain the protection of the listed events legislation for the whole of the World cup finals. That list was subsequently ratified by the European Commission under the relevant clauses of the TV without frontiers directive, whereby members of the European Union agreed to respect each others lists.

It is true that different nations place different weights on the importance of the various events. No other European nation lists the finals tournament in its entirety as Britain does, but some--such as Denmark, for example--go further than we do in other respects. Denmark has decided, unlike Britain, that all World cup

26 Apr 2001 : Column 544

matches--even those in the qualifying rounds--that involve the home nation must be shown on terrestrial television in Denmark. Outside Europe, the Australians passion for sport means that they list nearly 50 events--including, incidentally, our own FA cup final.

It is important that rightholders respect the law of the land of the different countries to which they want to sell their products. Contrary to some claims, Kirch knew full well in 1996, when he did the deal with FIFA, what British law consisted of--if he overbid for the rights, that is essentially his problem.

No one is saying that Kirsch has to give away the rights for free. Under the terms of the legislation, any deal which involved any exclusive element of live coverage of the World cup for subscription television would be subject to the agreement of the Independent Television Commission. The ITC would have to be convinced that the terrestrial broadcasters had been offered the event at a fair and reasonable price. Under the terms of the legislation, they would take into account previous fees for the event or similar events, the time of day for live coverage of the event, the revenue or audience potential associated with the live transmission of the event, the period for which the rights were offered, and competition in the marketplace.

The BBC and ITV have, according to newspaper reports, made a bid of £50 million for the 2002 finals. This may not be the £150 million to £200 million for which the Kirch Group was hoping, but it is 10 times what was paid in 1998. Given that during the 2002 finals in Japan and Korea most of the matches, instead of preceding or following on nicely from "Eastenders" and "Coronation Street" in prime time--as happened in 1998 in France--will be in the middle of the night, £50 million sounds reasonable. It also seems reasonable that ITV and BBC, to find this considerable sum, should pool their sport budgets to make a joint bid.

The Kirch Group is having none of all that. It has written to all interested Members of Parliament saying that it wants to start an auction process. It is widely rumoured and feared that Kirch is waiting for an election to be called before beginning the auction. Moreover, the group has claimed to have started proceedings in the European Court of First Instance to challenge the whole concept and scope of the United Kingdom's list. Fortunately, the Government have been robust in their assertions that our law must prevail. Moreover, in recent days Sky Sports has declared that it is not interested in participating in any auction for the World cup rights. Vic Wakeling, head of Sky Sports, told the Financial Times on 23 April:

It is interesting to note that Sky, which has made an enormous contribution to the televising of sport during the past 10 years, has thrived despite the listed events, the concept of which it opposed in 1997. As Wakeling sees it in the Financial Times interview:

drive subscribers,

26 Apr 2001 : Column 545

The issue of the television coverage of the next two World cups has become a major one in several European countries. In Spain, World cup rights have been sold to a satellite company called Via Digital. In Germany itself, where there are no listed events, the issue is even more sensitive. Chancellor Schroeder's Government put considerable pressure on the terrestrial broadcasters which have paid Kirch over DM500 million just for live coverage of 24 of the 62 matches in 2002, with only a possible option on covering 2006. Consequently, although Germany beat England for the rights to stage the World cup in 2006, ordinary Germans may be able to watch only a handful of matches on television compared with United Kingdom citizens, even though millions of deutschmarks of taxes will have been spent on the stadiums. Not surprisingly, in Germany a campaign is starting to have a similar list of crown jewels to that which we currently enjoy. British football fans of both the fanatical and casual variety will not rest easy until Kirch signs a deal with the BBC and ITV. It is clearly in the interests of the company to come to a deal without unnecessary delay.

In another field, the company has already been forced to retreat from its plans to transfer Formula 1 racing to subscription television because of pressure from car manufacturers. Further damaging publicity could make the Kirch Group public enemy No. 1 among sports fans across Europe.

FIFA, too, needs to step in and sort out this problem. In recent days, Neil Wilson of the Daily Mail has brilliantly exposed how ISL--FIFA's agents who handle television rights outside Europe--is close to bankruptcy. Apparently, Latin American television companies paid up to $100 million to ISL accounts that have been frozen due to the company's horrendous debts. Rumours abound that the Kirch Group itself is in some financial trouble. Both Kirch and ISL have made promises to FIFA that they may be unable to fulfil.

It is possible that, on Wednesday 6 June, England will play Greece in a crucial World cup qualifier. I say "possible" because, as of half an hour ago, FIFA had still not decided whether to kick Greece out of the tournament because of various irregularities. Hopefully, that match will go ahead on 6 June. If it does, it is possible that the following day--7 June--will be one of more than usual political significance. Harold Wilson always blamed--at least in part--England's defeat by Germany in the 1970 World cup for his own subsequent loss at the polls. As a Member holding what could be considered by some people a marginal seat, I will thus have a double reason to cheer on England loudly on 6 June, should the match take place. The good news is that I shall be able to watch the match live on terrestrial television--the BBC on this occasion. I only hope that the same will be true of the final of the World cup tournament next year. The matter is certainly not one of life or death, but for many ordinary people it is of some importance.

Next Section

IndexHome Page