Party banks on the beautiful game

  • 2002-07-04
  • Steven C. Johnson, RIGA
He may be a football fan, but lawmaker Janis Jurkans makes no bones about why his political party dipped into its coffers to buy broadcasting rights for the World Cup: more votes.

Latvia's largest public and private TV channels failed to reach an agreement to broadcast games by the tournament opener May 31, claiming the asking price was too high.

A few days later, Jurkans' For Human Rights in a United Latvia party eagerly played the white knight by funding an agreement that allowed local station TEM, which normally relays programming from Russia's state-owned ORT channel, to broadcast matches.

Jurkans said he indeed calculated the political gains that delivering World Cup coverage to Latvian football fans would bring.

"I would be lying if I said I never thought of the political aspects of the deal, the chance to advertise for the party," he told The Baltic Times. "I saw an opportunity and we took it."

Party ads were frequently aired during matches, and the contract required play-by-play commentators to periodically name For Human Rights as sponsor, Jurkans said.

State-owned Latvijas Televizija said the German TV firm Kir-cheSport, which snapped up the rights to the 2002 tournament for a whopping $3.8 billion, was charging $400,000 to broadcast the tournament - a price far beyond the means of most stations in Latvia, public and private.

Privately-owned LNT and TV-3 also failed to reach a deal with the firm.

"People were disappointed when channels were showing films instead of football, but for us in Latvia, $400,000 is an incredibly big amount," said Dace Klagisa, international sports coordinator at Latvijas Televizija.

In 1998, TV rights for the World Cup went for $119 million; Latvijas Televizija paid 90,000 Swiss francs ($61,000) to broadcast matches that year, and even that nearly broke the channel's meager budget, Klagisa said.

Once the TEM agreement was reached, the channel sold a sub-license to Latvijas Televizija to simultaneously broadcast games with Latvian commentary. The commentary on TEM was in Russian.

Speculation about the source of the money has been rife, but Jurkans refused to disclose how much the party paid for its football coup: all in good time, he says. In an election year, Latvian law requires political parties to disclose all spending and donations at least 20 days before the poll. Latvians will elect a new Parlia-ment on Oct. 5.

In the meantime, he said party offices had been flooded with phone calls, letters and e-mails from grateful soccer fans. And in a recent poll by the SKDS research company, For Human Rights was the only major party to improve upon the support it claimed just before parliamentary elections four years ago.

"I'm glad that we could use our party money for tangible things rather than simply spending it on naked slogans. We wanted to show voters we are capable of doing practical things," he said.

Inese Voika, president of corruption watchdog Transparency International's Latvian branch, said spending on political advertising had increased over the past two years, but also noted that parties who spend the most don't necessarily finish atop the polls. The center-right People's Party, she said, spent 1 million lats ($1.67 million) on municipal election ads in 2001, but was shut out of the government in the country's main cities.

"People are growing more skeptical about the promises and the heavy advertising," she said.

Aivars Ozolins, a political columnist at the daily Diena, said he also thought the financial fallout from the deal could actually cost For Human Rights votes.

"I would like to see how they managed to come up with the money. They may even lose some credibility if it turns out they really had to come up with huge resources to win the contract," he said.

For Human Rights has 16 seats in Latvia's 100-member Saeima (Latvia's parliament) and is also a coalition partner in Riga's city government.