A frosty response for Kaiser Franz

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WITH ANY luck, the ar- rival of March later this week will herald an upturn in clement weather and remove the impetus from the conspiracy to make fundamental changes to the traditional form and order of the sporting year. Support for a period of hibernation has come not so much from the chattering classes as from the chattering teeth as we bravely attempted to play our way through the heart of the worst winter for three decades.

If Franz Beckenbauer, for instance, has his way, football folk throughout Europe would this week be rubbing their eyes, stretching their arms and scratching themselves in readiness to rise from a deep winter slumber. The German maestro has put forward the serious proposition that the football season across the continent should run from March to December, thereby avoiding the cruelties of January and February once and for all.

He isn't the first to suggest this sort of reform and I fear he won't be the last. Calls for a mid-winter break usually coincide with the first chilblains and thereafter take their intensity from the severity of the weather. During the mild winters of recent years, a full programme has meant no time or inclination for idle chat. In a nasty winter, however, it becomes a self-propelling crusade. The more matches called off, the more ammunition for the reformers, the more time for talk and the more space available for debate in the sports pages.

Extra pressure this year has come from the rash of instability spreading through the world of sport. This is not unconnected with the gushing of money from television and the jostling for the main share of it. Rugby league's decision to agree to a future as a summer sport has also been unsettling although the move was not driven by an urge to forsake winter as much as by an urge not to forsake the pounds 87m offered by Sky as a persuader.

Having embraced professionalism, rugby union were also emboldened to challenge winter's hold on them. The RFU proposed moving the Five Nations' Championship to May. There was, quite rightly, an outcry but the thought hasn't gone away. Can you imagine it? January and February without football, without the Five Nations and without rugby league. How the hell would we amuse ourselves in the bleakest months?

We might have had a shocking winter but the action has hardly flagged since the turn of the year. We've seen some exciting football in all codes, we've had FA Cup giantkillers like Port Vale, Wigan have lost their first Challenge Cup tie for eight years and the Five Nations has packed a few surprises. If we had had to wait until May, we wouldn't have thrilled to Scotland's transformation and Arwel Thomas would still be a twinkle in the eyes of the Welsh selectors.

The hibernationists made much of the Forest-Spurs Cup-tie that was abandoned in a blizzard last Monday. The futility of playing at this time might have been emphasised had the stands been deserted. But 17,000 turned up. How can you ignore that demand? The following night was one of the coldest of the winter yet the attendances were far from derisory in all divisions. Over 4,500 left their firesides to watch Carlisle play Swansea, both in the bottom six of our third grade division. What other activity would tempt that many people out on a night like that unless it was the public hanging of the local MP?

On a balmy night in summer more might be enticed out but the counter- attractions would be far stronger than they are in a bitter February. It is inconvenient, but we happen to live in a climate that stinks and not the least of the attractions of the great games we invented was their capacity to see us cheerfully through the worst parts. You tamper with that part of our sporting ecology at your peril.

SKY'S proposed pay-per- view fee of pounds 9.95 for watch- ing next month's Frank Bruno-Mike Tyson fight from Las Vegas has been rightly criticised. I would want to receive a lot more than that for staying up until way past three o'clock in the morning to see an unspecified amount of shuffling, pawing, clinching and, if you're lucky, one decent punch.

Mind you, if I did enjoy it I would have no objection to lobbing a few nobbins in their direction. Televised boxing hasn't advanced that far that grateful fans can chuck coins into the ring like they used to but you could phone in with your credit card like they do on Comic Relief.

Since pay-per-view is destined to occupy an increasing amount of our attention, it may be helpful to the providers of this sporting boon to have an indication of how much we're prepared to take for the items they would like us to watch.

The following, for instance, is my personal tariff of charges that will ensure my rapt attention (I offer a money back guarantee if I nod off).

l Joe Bugner comeback fight: pounds 12.50.

l Women's tennis, men's gymnastics, showjumping: pounds 15 each.

l Grand prix motor racing: pounds 1 a lap. pounds 1.50 with the sound up.

l Long-distance swimming, pursuit cycling, pole-vaulting, 10,000 metres heats, basketball and pro-celebrity golf: pounds 25 for any two.

l Indoor bowls: pounds 30 an hour.

l Nordic skiing, giant slalom, the luge: bids in sealed envelopes.

l Olympic Games medal presentations: pounds 100 a dozen.

l Olympic Games opening ceremony: pounds 500, free beer and a home delivery pizza.

Just in case it is felt that I'm being mean about pay-per-view I would be quite happy to pay for an event if I was keen to see it. If they can afford it, any true sports fan would. We've been paying to watch the sports of our choice for a century or more; whether we do so via a television unscrambler or a turnstyle doesn't seem to make much difference.

IF ONLY sea-birds were as good at repelling oil as bookmakers are at repelling sympathy. Bookies have suffered as much as most from the wickedness of the weather but just when you think it is time to stop being beastly to them, they drive all charitable thoughts away.

Their latest request is for the law to be changed so that 14-year-olds can accompany their mothers into betting shops. At the moment the minimum age is 18 and at the annual general meeting of the Betting Offices Licensees Association, the retiring chairman, Don Bruce, said: "We are keen to encourage women to come into betting shops and one of the reasons they don't, especially in the evenings, is because they have to look after the children."

Bruce added that since you can buy a lottery ticket at 16 you should also be allowed into a betting shop at that age. The kindly government has already compensated bookmakers for their losses to the National Lottery by allowing them to install fruit machines in their shops; now they want extra recruits to play them.

Perhaps they should go the whole hog and allow mothers to take in kids of all ages - assuming, that is, that the betting shops will accept bets in nursery school vouchers.

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