A whole new meaning for this sporting life

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WE'RE sitting in front of the television, watching a major sporting event, and one of the teams is leading by so much it's almost a joke; they've been winning all season, nobody else has had a look-in.

Steve says: 'They're going to lose.'

'Well . . . maybe the other team will get lucky . . . '

'Luck's got nothing to do with it. They're going to throw it away. You see, if they win . . . '

'You mean . . ? You don't mean . . ?'

It's beginning to dawn on me. Yes] I see . . . Surely not. But this nasty little thought, that sport might be fixed in order to make it more exciting, better television, a better vector for sponsorship, only causes the most minor pang of doubt these days. The ad-men are getting everywhere, changing everything, directly and indirectly: movie scripts, plots, camera-angles, the actual rules of sport.

After a while, like a hypochondriac, you begin to see this cancer everywhere; the overt tumours of sponsorship logos, the frightening lumps of product placement in movies . . . and what about the stuff you don't see, the secret invisible spread . . . where else is it? The news? The weather?

I think: if this team wins, they'll practically have the whole thing sewn up, half way through the season. As a contest, the rest of the season will be dead. People will begin to switch off, thus spending less of their time directly exposed to advertising logos, buying fewer cameras, sweaters, cigarettes, cars, carpets, holidays, pension plans . . . you can see how much money is involved here.

The grip of sponsorship is spreading, it's getting everywhere, and we're more and more aware of it, and this fact alone is worrying. Think of the practice of product placement in movies. You're a soft-drinks company, say. You pay part of the film company's budget to have the hero drink your drink, and to have the villain drink your rival's drink. You don't just want your product to appear - you want it to be flattered, to look good. So you come into the script meetings, you have a say in the plot. That's why more and more movies have happy endings these days. They're co-written by ad-men. If you don't believe me, read 'Hollywood: The Ad' by Mark Crispin Miller (The Atlantic Monthly, April 1990).

I'm watching a movie, down here in the dark, eyes fixed on the screen; I haven't got a zapper. Captive audience; can't switch over if I want to avoid advertising. The story's ideal product fodder: sexy couple, nice clothes, decent cars, lovely apartment, a bit of sleeping around. It's just about plot-point time (25 minutes into your typical movie, you get a jolt of action to shake things up a bit), and we're following a car; as the car turns, the camera lingers on the logo. We see Volvo, and the camera seems to stay there, and I think: product placement. And then I think: there's a point to this, there'll be a crash, but the guy will survive. And the camera swings away, up into the sky, following the car through a winter landscape, and the music gets all doomy; pre-crash music. Then: crash] (driver error). Cut to somewhere else. But I sense the guy will survive, that the thick protective shell of the Volvo will see him through. It does.

Of course, this might not have been product placement. This is one thing they don't advertise. It might just be my own brand name hypochondria getting out of control. But the hypochondria is important. Viewers have begun to look out for this kind of thing. Ten years ago, even five, product placement in movies was good advertising; good, because it wasn't advertising, exactly. It didn't smack you in the face - it crept up on you. But what will happen, now that we're getting wise? They'll have to think of something new, something even more sneaky.

It's getting everywhere . . . they're changing our stories. Have you noticed that people keep changing the rules of sport, to make it more TV-friendly? Sport is a kind of story, the story of two competing interests, the narrative determined by the rules. Well, rugby used to be one kind of story, and now it's another kind - a bit faster, a bit more colourful, with a few of the old subtleties hammered out. In other words, by changing the rule which allows one scrum-half to catch the other scrum-half offside (a great little manoeuvre, I thought), and by awarding five points instead of four for a try, the Rugby authorities are adding a few car-chases, editing in a few jump-cuts.

And what about football? Just look at the shirts. Why are the colours so lurid? Because the point of them is to carry logos. And what next? Rule-changes, of course. Now the goalkeeper cannot handle a back-pass. Why? Because without back-passes, the game will be more attacking, and more goals will be scored. It's a different game now. It's not a pensive face-off between two rivals. It's not High Noon. No, they don't want High Noon any more. What they want is Terminator 2, Days Of Thunder, Top Gun.

Surely not the news we read? But . . . Maybe. Doctor, I think I'm feeling a pain. Right here - in the newspaper. Newspapers make more money from selling advertising than from selling their product: information. So they're selling readers to advertisers slightly more than they're selling news to readers. And nobody knows for sure, but . . . Can you imagine them actually changing the news just to find their advertising markets a bit better?

But this game here . . . it's fine. They're still way out ahead. Cruising home. But suddenly - and you can hear it in the voice of the commentator, his sudden ferret-up-the-trousers excitement . . . 'What's this? Oh wow, this is amazing. . ] The tide is turning . . . and we could be in for a real shock here . . .'

Surely not. I don't think that sponsorship, even on this scale, even those cigarettes, those cars, those holiday companies, those banks . . . No, they wouldn't do this. I don't believe it.

Steve says: 'I told you.' Cue the doomy music.