SPORTS

Soccer clubs set to lose big TV contracts

The «suspension of activities» by Alpha Digital, one of two providers of pay-TV services, has left 10 of the 16 clubs taking part in the top division of the Greek soccer league without television coverage of their games and a few tens of thousands of Greek consumers with useless channel decoders. Warnings about a possible failure by Alpha Digital had been circulating for months and yesterday’s announcement surprised no one. Characteristically, all 10 teams – Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, AEK, PAOK, Panachaiki, Aris, Proodeftiki, Xanthi, Panionios and Ioannina – had drastically cut their budget for signing new players, knowing that tough times were ahead. This leaves Netmed, former owners of AEK, as the only pay-TV platform, holding contracts with the remaining six teams – Aegaleo, Akratitos, Ionikos, Iraklis, Kallithea and OFI. It is also in court with AEK, which preferred to break its contract to join the Alpha Digital platform last year. In 1996, Netmed had acquired the rights to televise the matches of the top three divisions for 5 billion drachmas (15 mln euros). Five years later, thanks to a new law, individual professional sports clubs were made responsible for negotiating their own TV contracts. Alpha Digital was set up expressly for this purpose, offering big sums to teams and hoping to recoup the 90 million euros it had invested from advertising and subscribers’ fees. However, there were no more than a few thousand «good customers» willing to buy a second digital signal decoder to place on top of their Netmed one, and pay yet another fee. Right now, the elite of the underachieving and overpriced Greek soccer find themselves in a difficult position. Only Panathinaikos stands to lose nothing, as it used a middleman to negotiate its 7.5-million-euro contract and has received its money. It is expected to continue televising its matches on Alpha Channel, which is open to all viewers. The remaining nine clubs in contract with Alpha Digital find themselves in various degrees of difficulty, with AEK and Olympiakos having lost some 13 million euros each. (In AEK’s case, this included 1.5 million as payment for the right to advertise the channel on its uniforms.) Olympiakos faces less of a problem, due to the financial strength of its owner, Socrates Kokkalis, but AEK is in a much more delicate financial position, as are smaller clubs with contracts as low as 1.75 million euros (in the case of Ioannina). The clubs’ first reaction yesterday was to demand the impossible: that state TV ERT take up their Alpha Digital contracts and honor them. This is impossible and the clubs know it. But the clubs are taking this extreme position in order to bargain with the State. The government, for the present, seems to stand firm. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who in the past has been more than willing to bail out bankrupt professional clubs, especially those from his Thessaloniki constituency, was adamant. «The State cannot back adventurers,» he told Parliament in the midst of a debate on a new sports law. He forecast that judicial procedures would drag on because «we are talking about huge sums.» He did hint that state soccer pool and lottery company OPAP could contribute something if it can afford to, as long as it could negotiate with «credible businesses.» Even if Venizelos were willing, however, ERT would be in no position to offer more than 50 million to soccer teams at a time when it could only offer about 2.05 million euros to basketball clubs that found themselves without a contract. The basketball clubs have disdainfully rejected the offer but, as new ERT boss Angelos Stangos told them, ERT is not a charity; it must operate as a business. The clubs have also devised a fallback strategy which plays right into the hands of Kokkalis. They demand that Greek League games be included in Stoichima, by far the most popular of the OPAP games. The trouble is, Stoichima is managed and played on machinery provided by Kokkalis’s company Intralot. So, for him to have a stake in a pools game and be owner of a soccer club is out of the question. However, he and supportive clubowners hope that popular pressure at the prospect of a halt in the most popular sport in Greece would persuade the government to bend its rules. But with Greek soccer sliding yearly into further disrepute with allegations of game fixing and referee bribes made openly, and recently with violence against top soccer officials, it would be very difficult to argue for putting taxpayers’ money into such a cause.