Football website goes to law against Premier League

The FA Premier League’s licensing scheme for the written press has thrown up a range of anomalies, and has prompted Yanks Abroad – which covers US footballers around the world – to start legal proceedings after being denied a licence this season. Sean O’Conor, Yanks Abroad’s England desk chief, takes up the story

Yanks Abroad began in 2004 when six Americans lamented how little coverage there was of their best footballers, who were based outside the United States, and decided to do something about it.

By January 2007, we had turned into one of the world’s top 20 football websites (according to Google) and had surpassed Sky Sports’ website in visitor numbers, while our staff have been interviewed by Channel 5, CNN, ESPN and The Guardian and been quoted frequently by Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and many others. Our traffic continues to grow, with 16 of our top 20 days for hits occurring this past month.

YA covers several European domestic leagues and the American national teams, and was fully accredited for the World Cup in Germany. But when it came to getting one of the Premier League’s new licences to cover football in England, the cornerstone of our reporting, where 17 Americans (such as Blackburn’s Brad Friedel) ply their trade professionally, we have been denied the opportunity to do our jobs.

The renewal forms for 2006-07 were sent to us by the Premier League in an envelope without postage. When we returned the forms, we received a letter refusing renewal, giving nothing beyond “there is only so much space in the press box” as explanation.

We made several attempts to contact DataCo, who handle the licensing paperwork, and the Premier League, but only a recent letter mentioning the possibility of legal action provoked Derek Johnston of the Premier League into calling a meeting.

Johnston began by offering us only a Football League licence, but this was hardly the point: there are 12 Americans in the Premiership. The keys to our success have been our specialisation and establishing personal connections between ourselves, players and readers.

After an hour’s discussion with Johnston, we were promised a two-week review of our case.

What was striking was that there appears to be nothing in black and white regarding the criteria for awarding Premier League licences, beyond the need for public liability insurance, which we had purchased as required despite one lawyer I spoke to informing me it was actually unnecessary as ground insurance covers any eventuality caused by a journalist.

What the Premiership was defending seemed to be overly discretionary and arbitrary rules, which made us to feel we had a legitimate right to challenge them.

We argued that the clubs are happy to let us in because we report responsibly on areas of football not covered elsewhere and so we provide a valuable tool for promoting the Premier League in one of its target growth areas, the United States. When pressed to say why exactly we weren’t welcome, Johnston said nothing beyond “you’re not Yahoo” and “you’re not The Times” (Yahoo, in any case, uses wires and does not do its own reporting as we do).

Johnston seemed to be implying only big and established outlets were welcome, while smaler and newer ones were not. He asked us if we felt we were equivalent to a local or national newspaper.

We explained to him that as a specialised online service we were different to both, but given the choice we are national, because we are read by people across the United States and globally via the internet (approx 60-65 per cent of our readership lives in America).

All our writers belong to AIPS, yet we were told that the recent concession to overseas members of AIPS would not apply in our case: our reporters could come to England to cover the occasional game, but not make it a regular thing – again the official line seemed vague, ad hoc and unsatisfactory.

We are considering our next move but feel important principles of reporting freedom and transparency of rules are at stake here. We are based in a country (America) which has freedom of the press enshrined in its constitution and an access to sporting events and participants for media representatives of which English football journalists can only dream.

The Premiership is of such global significance that we feel that the FA Premier League’s practices on reporting access need updating to take account of proliferating worldwide media. It would at least help if they showed us written criteria that confirms that only large and established English outlets are really welcome.

Visit the Yanks Abroad website here

Join the NUJ’s online survey on football accreditations by clicking here

Try to find the licensing criteria on the FA Premier League’s website here