Putin slams TV soccer deal

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MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is crying foul over an exclusive $100 million satellite TV deal to screen the country's premiere league soccer games.

The four-year deal between pay TV satellite service NTV-Plus and the Russian Football Union -- the first of its kind -- brought a sharp response from Putin, who blew the whistle Wednesday on behalf of ordinary fans, who will now need to pay to watch premier league games.

"NTV-Plus and the Russian Football Union are causing chaos. They want to deprive us ordinary people of watching soccer (on television) free of charge," Putin said during a regular Kremlin meeting on social affairs.

In a televised exchange that led state channel Rossiya's flagship evening news broadcast, Putin instructed Dmitri Medvedev -- first deputy prime minister who is tipped as a possible future president following Putin's planned departure next year -- to "sort out the mess."

NTV-Plus, the football union and its main sponsors, state insurance giant Rosgosstrakh reacted Thursday with a flurry of announcements suggesting that the deal in its current form may be significantly changed.

Stressing that it was a "socially responsible company," NTV-Plus said that it, its parent company Gazprom-Media, the Russian Football Union and the Russian Premier League will be meeting to consider how better to address the interests of Russian soccer fans.

NTV-Plus spokeswoman Anastasia Kazakova said the exclusive deal already contains provisions that ensure the "central match" of each premier league round will be aired on free-to-view First Channel and that key regional matches will go out on regional terrestrial channels.

NTV-Plus also was working on setting up a dedicated football-only channel that would allow fans to watch premier league matches live for 299 rubles ($11.40) a month, rather than the current basic subscription to NTV-Plus that costs 550 rubles ($21.20).

"Football fans will get all their favorite matches live for about the same cost as a subscription to a sports newspaper," Kazakova said in an interview.

State free-to-view sports channel RTR Sport has been offered the opportunity to air premier league matches through March 15 while arrangements are being put in place for the new soccer-only channel, Kazakova added.

In addition, NTV-Plus will run a new weekly football show on its free-to-air terrestrial sister channel NTV that would include goals and highlights from all premier league matches, Kazakova said.

But some fancy footwork may still trip up the deal. Key soccer sponsors Rosgosstrakh Thursday said that cutting many ordinary football fans out of the picture may force it to reconsider its lucrative sponsorship deal with the Russian Football Union and Russian Premier League.

If the NTV-Plus deal led to a reduced number of TV viewers, its advertising would be less effective and returns on investment lower, Rosgosstrakh said.
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