Leeds United last night denied claims that owner Massimo Cellino is seeking to break the Football League’s television deal with Sky and negotiate individual broadcast rights.
The club issued a clarification in response to a report in the Mail on Sunday which said Cellino was attempting to free Leeds from the existing contract between the Football League and Sky and secure his own TV deal.
The suggestion came as it emerged that the Football League had been forced to seek a legal injunction to ensure that tonight’s game between Leeds and Middlesbrough went ahead.
The Mail on Sunday said the governing body took the extraordinary step to prevent United from refusing to honour the rearranged date of Boro’s visit to Elland Road.
That clash is the latest step in a bitter fight over televised matches and fixture disruption, and the injunction came after Sky angered Leeds by choosing to move their meeting with Boro from the original date of Saturday afternoon to this evening.
United tried to oppose that switch but were pressurised into accepting the new date as a fierce dispute over television rights and the club’s repeated appearances on Sky intensified.
Leeds have been selected for live broadcast on 13 occasions this season, a figure which the club see as excessive and unfairly disruptive.
United have not commented on whether it was served with an injunction by the Football League and a spokesman for the League said legal reasons prevented it from commenting but Leeds dismissed the claim that Cellino was attempting to break Sky’s £100m-a-year deal.
A move in that direction would potentially increase United’s annual revenue but threaten the income of many of the Football League’s other 71 clubs. In a post on Twitter, Peterborough United chairman Darragh MacAnthony called the idea “madness”.
But United executive director Paul Bell, who represented Leeds at a Football League meeting in Milton Keynes on Thursday, said: “I would like to make it clear that Leeds United is not seeking, or taken legal action, to dismantle the collective selling of TV rights as has been suggested.
“This model has proven extremely successful for some of the biggest leagues around the world, none more so than the Premier League.
“The club has, however, made it clear to both Sky and the League that it opposes the degree of control exercised by Sky over the league fixture list, and seeks transparency as to how these rights have been sold.
“Today’s article seeks to position Leeds United as a lone, isolated voice. However, this is far from the truth and there is a growing number of clubs who now understand and share our desire for transparency.
“It is our duty to protect the long-term interests of the club and our passionate supporters. Therefore, we will continue to pursue these issues with the Football League.”
The conflict between Cellino and the Football League - played out against the backdrop of the organisation’s attempt to ban Cellino from running Leeds for a second time - boiled over in December when the Italian threatened to shut Sky out of a televised game against Derby County at Elland Road.
He “reluctantly” relented at the last minute but vowed that the broadcaster would not be allowed into the stadium again this season.
Tonight’s clash with Boro, however, was then rearranged for television purposes last month, less than four weeks in advance.
The late change led to criticism of Sky and the Football League from supporters of both clubs but the governing body indicated at the time that legal action launched by United had delayed a rearrangement which Sky originally wanted to confirm before Christmas.
In a statement issued last month, the League said: “It is a matter of regret to the Football League that supporters of Leeds United and Middlesbrough have only been informed of the new date for this match at such a late stage.
“Like other matches being broadcast during February, this game was originally selected for transmission by Sky Sports in early December with home clubs asked to make the necessary arrangements at the time.
“However, as was referenced by Leeds United in its statement of December 29, the club has challenged the League “through the appropriate legal routes” which has prevented confirmation of the date of this fixture until now.”
Tonight’s game against Boro will go ahead as planned but news of the League’s injunction against Leeds comes with pressure mounting Cellino from sections of the club’s fans.
Earlier this week, footage emerged of the 59-year-old joking about United’s controversial ‘pie tax’ policy and describing it as a punishment for supporters who were criticising him. He later told the YEP that those remarks were “just a joke”.
On Thursday, an advert paid for by a group of around 70 supporters was positioned outside the entrance to Elland Road’s East Stand, bearing the words ‘Time to go, Massimo.’ That same group are threatening further protests before this evening’s game, though Cellino travelled to Italy this week and is not expected to attend the clash with Boro.