Victory for website in Premier League battle

From Sean O’Conor, Yanks Abroad
On Saturday, after months of dispute with the Premier League, Yanks Abroad finally returned to the press box of a Premiership football game. The renewal of our reporting licence had been denied at the start of this season and we were never given an adequate explanation.

Calls and e-mails to DataCo, the company handling the red tape of accreditation, were not returned and faxes went missing at Premier League headquarters, while too often it seemed the people we needed to speak to were on holiday or unavailable.

In short, we hit a dead end in trying to get our licence back. So we turned to the SJA for help.

Steven Downes, the SJA Secretary, gave us useful advice and we are very grateful to Keir Radnedge for speaking directly to Derek Johnston at the Premier League.

We decided that we should introduce the possibility of legal action into our claim. As soon as we mentioned that option, we were summoned to Premier League headquarters for a friendly chat.

Johnston told us he was prepared to offer us a Football League, but not a Premier League, licence. That was no good to us because 12 American players are in the top flight.

Not big enough?
When we pressed for an explanation, Johnston could come up with nothing beyond, “You’re not the Times”. We tried to explain we were not in competition with The Times, or anyone else for that matter, because we focus uniquely on the American players and their performances.

That we weren’t big or “prestige” enough seemed to be the beginning and end of his argument. But why should that be a reason for excluding us if the clubs were happy to allow us in?

Even though we are an essentially “niche” website, we get more hits per day than Sky Sports’ site. So we are not a fanzine.

We have built up a loyal following who would have been as bemused as the players were when we told them we might have to fold because the Premier League didn’t like us. We were promoting the PL in America. So what harm were we doing?

As the discussion went on, the more we felt confident that since the PL had nothing in black and white to back up their arguments, we would have a good chance of claiming restraint of trade in court and winning.

Incidentally, Johnston said ‘What’s the SJA?’ when I mentioned it to him. He knows now.

At the end of the meeting, he realised we were not about to give up, so he promised a two-week review. We decided in the interim period to up the pressure by hiring a lawyer and alerting our media friends.

DataCo received a lawyers’ letter clarifying our intention to take the Premier League to court over restraint of trade. We received promises of support from USA Today, Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times and Matt Scott wrote a piece in The Guardian on the eve of the decision.

Scott’s piece clearly caused a kerfuffle, as immediately we received a call and an e-mail from DataCo, the people who before had been so hard to get hold of…

A wasted season
Happily, the following day we were informed our license was to be renewed, albeit with nine weeks of the season remaining.

It was the right result and despite the wasted season, it was better than losing, but what a palaver we had been through after all the work we had put in building our website from scratch.

No other country in Europe affords its football writers so little access as England, where it seems we are treated as a necessary evil at best. In America, for goodness sake, it is normal for journalists to enter the changing rooms after games.

The US has freedom of the press enshrined in its constitution while England has “rights-holders” and “the Mondays”, who get privileged access and dominate press conferences to the extent of taking umbrage when another journalist dares ask a question that doesn’t follow their theme of the day.

We have noticed how teams like Reading and Watford, which came up from the Championship last year where they offered open access for journalists post-match, suddenly closed their doors. Or in Reading’s case, erected a huge wall to keep all but a select few writers from the nationals out.

Threatening the norms
In Europe, I have always found mixed zones where everybody has, in theory, an equal chance of getting quotes by standing in a huddle. Here, I only get to speak to Premier League players I already know personally outside the stadium, or manage to ambush them as they walk to the team coach.

Yes, “there is only so much space in the press box” as DataCo informed us when initially turning us down, but if it is the governing body and not the clubs who must decide which media organisations to let in, they must have some legally sound criteria to do so clearly documented. Otherwise, it just seems like they’re picking their friends.

Yanks Abroad threatened these norms by being American, internet-based with a mostly overseas readership and, unlike many Far East soccer sites, not remotely interested in Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, because they have no American players. This latter point we still had to repeat to DataCo even after receiving our licence.

What legal right they have to prevent us entering someone’s premises as a guest is still beyond me, but at least I hope we proved no organisation, even the mighty Premiership, is above the law.

The whole licensing requirement seems a farce, based on the image rights demands of wealthy clubs. No insurers in the United States could offer us public liability insurance as journalists, and we had great trouble finding the service offered in the UK as well. One lawyer I spoke to told me point blank that any eventuality is in any case covered by the ground’s insurance and that public liability inurance for writers is irrelevant and unheard of.

When we traveled to the Premier League’s HQ and found that they could not produce a single piece of paperwork to justify their decision to exclude us, we were left with the inescapable conclusion that they are arbitrarily making decisions and then dressing them up as official rules by demanding unnecessary things like public liability insurance for journalists.

We are delighted to be allowed to be football journalists once more, but still depressed that England’s reporting culture has not moved with the times and we still feel a great sense of curtailment in this country.

Our traffic continues to grow and the good relationships we have established with American players means we have a solid base to build on. Overtaking Sky Sports’ readership in the same week the Premier League was telling us we were not big enough was really sweet.

For the background to this story and more on working conditions for sports journalists, follow these links:

Football licences and press liberty

Football website goes to law against Premier League

Photographer “stunned” by arrest at match

Melbourne bunglers build pool without a view

Click here to visit the Yanks Abroad website