Massimo Cellino vs Sky Sports & The Football League

by | Dec 29, 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, Massimo Cellino is proving as difficult to predict as ever. In his position as the Football League’s very own Schrödinger’s club owner – banned twice by the League after his tax affairs in Italy resulted in prosecution, he simultaneously does and doesn’t run Leeds United while he awaits a date for another appeal – Cellino has been dragging the name of the club through the mud for more than a year and a half in a manner to which supporters of the club have now become wearily accustomed but this time, for once, the target of his ire isn’t the supporters themselves.

It is, in a move that provides a novel twist on his apparent desire to be perpetually become involved in a fight in an empty room, the Football League and Sky Sports. Despite the fact that it has been more than ten years that the club last graced the Premier League, Leeds United AFC remains, to use the vernacular of such matters, big box office, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by broadcasters, who have already selected the club to play live on the television eleven times this season – nine times already, with a further two matches scheduled. Earlier in the season, Cellino limited the number of tickets that the club would accept for away matches to 2,000 in order to seek to prove a point about what he perceives as the club being taken for granted, but this was soon withdrawn after inspiring yet more ire from a support base, a sizable proportion of which has long tired of the ongoing soap opera that the club has long been.

Yesterday, however, the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper reported that Cellino has instructed staff at the club to refuse access to the cameras of Sky Sports for this evening’s Championship match against Derby County. It might be tempting to see such a move as a reaction to the excessive televising of matches and their effect on supporters, but to see such selflessness on the part of Cellino is wide of the mark. In this case, it seems that the owner is more concerned with the effect that televised matches have on attendances, and in turn revenue for the club. Such a decision, however, puts the club on an unprecedented collision course with the Football League, who issued an exasperated sounding statement in response to the latest story:

The League has been made aware that Sky personnel have been unable to access Elland Road today as previously arranged. We have contacted Leeds United to remind the club of its obligations to our broadcast partner and to ask them for their observations. As yet, we have not received a response from anyone in authority at the club, but are hopeful that the matter can be resolved swiftly once the club does engage.

The club’s obligations to the “broadcast partners” of the Football League are covered by Section 73 of the League’s regulations, which read as follows:

73.1 No audio and/or visual footage from any match in any competition conducted by The League shall be televised or recorded or transmitted by internet, television, mobile networks, satellite or cable or any similar method except with the written consent of The League nor shall any Club take part in any match (except matches in the Football Association Challenge Cup Competition) which is to be televised or recorded or transmitted by satellite or cable or any similar method without first obtaining the written consent of The League. 73.2 The League or any subsidiary or associated company of The League or duly authorised agent or broadcaster (and its respective employees and agents) shall be allowed access to the grounds of all Clubs (and to the television gantries, camera positions and facilities) for the purpose of recording or broadcasting matches arranged under the jurisdiction of The League.

Where the story becomes curious is in the involvement of legal representatives working on behalf of the club, who, it is understood, have requested a copy of the broadcast deal agreed between the Football League and Sky Sports, only to be told that the governing body is refusing to grant access to the contract. Such confidentiality clauses are not uncommon in ordinary contract law, and what relevance the contract between the Football League and Sky Sports has to the club itself is not fully clear, even if we might speculate that the League probably should provide such information to clubs when requested to. Section 73 of the Football League’s regulations refer to the “contract” – such as it is – between the Football League and clubs who are members of it, and it seems pretty clear that the club is in breach of regulations by not granting access to the broadcasters. What action might be taken against the club in the event that Sky Sports are prevented from entering Elland Road this evening is not known at this stage. After all, everybody concerned is into uncharted territory, here.

What we can be reasonably certain of, however, is that the Football League will take its contractual obligations towards Sky Sports very seriously. The recent exercise in rebranding that will see the Football League change its name to the English Football League from the end of this season seems to have been engineered specifically with a growing international broadcasting market in mind, for example, and it seems unlikely that this sort of news story will have provoked anything but ire within the inner sanctums of either the Football League or Sky Sports over the last couple of days or so.

Quite asides from anything else, the television deal between the Football League and broadcasters is nothing like as gold-plated as that between the Premier League and the same. Whereas it is commonly assented that broadcasters are as dependent on the revenue model that the Premier League television deal facilitates as the authorities – and in turn clubs – themselves, the Football League is in nothing like such a strong negotiating position when it comes to its television contract. Whilst Sky Sports may well view any inconvenience regarding this evening’s match as a relatively trifling issue, it doesn’t seem out of the question to suggest that, once contract negotiations come up for renewal, memories of the extent to which Leeds United proved to be a pain in the backside could well impact upon the amount of money that Sky are prepared to pay to continue showing matches. And that could have ramifications for every club in the Football League, not just Leeds United.

That the live broadcasting of matches has a detrimental effect upon attendances for clubs in the Football League is not really in dispute in a general sense, but Cellino can hardly argue that any club doesn’t ultimately benefit from the televising of matches. From a purely financial standpoint, each club taking part in a live televised match receives around £100,000 for its troubles on top of a fixed amount from a central pot, of which Championship clubs receive by far the lion’s share. And if £100,000 doesn’t cover the amount of money lost in revenues from moving the club around the fixture schedule, it might well be suggested that this has more to do with the amount that Cellino charges for entry into Elland Road than anything else. If a £100,000 payment only takes into account a drop of 2,000 in attendance for a match being shown on the television – and it certainly doesn’t seem unlikely that, for a club like Leeds United, attendances for live television matches could drop by at least this – then that small margin of a couple of thousand supporters has as much to do with the club charging almost forty pounds for entry to a second tier match as anything else. And in any case, it has also been pointed out that attendances for Leeds United matches that have been shown live on the television this season have generally been higher than for other matches. Perhaps lower than they might have been had any particular match not been televised, but still above the average, as a rule.

It has been reported that Massimo Cellino wants to negotiate individual terms for Leeds United, but it is difficult to imagine that such a wish will be granted. Separate rights for individual clubs have long been in place in Spain, for example, and have ruined La Liga as a spectacle because Barcelona and Real Madrid were able to receive so much more in television money than that league’s also-ran clubs. By comparison, the Premier League in England has remained relatively egalitarian in terms of the money that it distributes to clubs and has remained more competitive, which benefits not only supporters but also the league as a whole. Indeed, the Football League itself has received considerable positive press over the last few years for being unpredictable and going to the wire (although that wasn’t quite the case in the Championship last season) and neither the Football League – which is ultimately no more than the clubs themselves – nor Sky Sports are likely to want to give up that reputation willingly.

It certainly feels as though any offence taken by Massimo Cellino regarding the inconvenience to the club caused by its matches being shown live on the television is, when compared with the financial rewards that it gets from its television contract existing in the first place, completely disproportionate. So, what is the end game, here? Is Cellino really trying to renegotiate his terms of engagement with both the Football League and Sky Sports mid-contract? If so, it’s difficult to believe that he will be successful. As these matters are ultimately decided by a vote, it seems implausible that a majority of clubs will vote in favour of a small number of Championship clubs being granted a bigger ultimate slice of the financial pie than they already receive. And if Leeds United do end up receiving a hefty fine or even a points deduction over Cellino’s intransigence over this matter, then the owner will only have himself to blame. There is certainly a powerful argument to be made for the fact that these television contracts are a considerable inconvenience to match-going supporters. That much we have known for decades. To suggest that they are an inconvenience to clubs great enough to warrant the tantrum currently emanating from Elland Road, however, is a nonsense. Common sense and the greater good, however, seldom seem to be comfortable bedfellows for Massimo Cellino, and so it is that pantomime season rumbles on, in West Yorkshire, at least.

Edit: And so it was that, barely an hour after this was posted, it was reported that this evening’s match between Leeds United and Derby County will be shown live on the television after all, but that this, according to Cellino at least, will be the last time that television cameras will be allowed into Elland Road this season. We will wait with interest to see what the next act in this particularly ridiculous play brings.

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