A prime time for spreading the load

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The Independent Online
EVEN for the most addicted wallowers in epic sporting occasions, this weekend carries the danger of drowning in drama as the action cascades in from Aintree, Augusta, Barbados, Wembley and other venues too numerous to mention.

The trouble is that it won't be the watchers who are eventually imperilled by the surfeit, but the sports themselves. Saturation point cannot be far away.

The collision of events that crowds these two days is a co-

incidence. The US Masters always takes place in the first full week of April, so is in its usual place; the Grand National is normally held on the last weekend in March or the first in April but was pushed back by Easter; the FA Cup semi- finals are dictated by the Cup final date which is earlier this year; England Test matches in the West Indies are rationed by a merciful God to once every six years - and added to all this is the usual swell of vital championship matches in football and both rugby codes.

No doubt, such inconvenient clashes have happened on weekends in the past. What has not happened before is that all the events are on television. The sports fanatic with access to every TV channel is provided with a glut that even 10 years ago would have seemed fantastic. However, there is a downside for all three parties involved - the viewer, the viewing medium and the viewed.

The unprecedented amount of live action available over these 48 hours calls for dedicated duty in front of the set by the viewers. Domestic friction is inevitable and, at the very least, many men will have to compensate by attending garden centres and DIY stores for several weekends to come.

The television companies will need no reminder of the competitive situation they are in. One glance at the size of the fees being paid for exclusive rights is evidence of the valuable part sport is playing in the ratings battle. The pounds 27m that rugby union will receive from the BBC for the Five Nations Championship over the next three years proves what a fear-induced auction can achieve.

Sky paid a further pounds 7m for second rights in order to get their foot in the door and to acquire access to live club rugby matches. These will be yet another addition to the live sport ration and one wonders when they intend to stage the games. There is no obvious gap and more clashes are inevitable. Sooner or later, the television companies will have to apply their minds to preserving the appetite for sport by endeavouring to stagger the bigger events so that situations like this weekend can be avoided.

In a small way, this process seems to have begun already and it is now up to the sports concerned to decide quickly how much television interference with the timing of their events they intend to allow. For various sports to consult while compiling their major fixtures for the following year would be a departure from their normal habit of totally ignoring each other. It is in their interests, too, to spread the goodies more evenly in order to maximise their appeal to the television audience - an increasingly important priority. Football, our most powerful game, offers an illustration of the disadvantage of permitting television the opportunity to show matches outside the normal schedule.

Not too long ago there was an accepted time for the playing of football matches. Depending on how early it got dark, it was between two and three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and for the millions of Britons whose lives were touched by the game it was part of the rigid order of their existence.

The arrival of floodlights brought a slight relaxation of the convention, allowing for later kick- offs all winter through and enabling one or two smaller clubs to switch to Friday night in order to avoid clashing with bigger neighbours.

All the major games, however, continued to be brought on to the stage at the time appointed by tradition. Cup finals, championship deciders and even internationals remained firmly entrenched in the Saturday football slot. It would have been unthinkable then that one day these jewels would be prised loose from their setting and sprinkled around willy nilly.

Admittedly, many changes have overtaken our lives and our habits in recent years but football should be nevertheless wary of surrendering the tradition that Saturday afternoon is its prime time. That is when the attention of the nation is centred on the game, when the results and their effect on the league tables are digested and analysed. The dispersion of key games to Sunday afternoon and Monday evening has already led to a slackening of interest during that early Saturday evening period when football once dominated our thoughts. The fact that some of the most vital matches will not dribble into view until Sunday and Monday does not help sustain the fascination.

The displacement of the FA Cup semi-finals from Saturday afternoon was a commercial inevitability but I fear their removal to Wembley is another step towards the devaluation of the final as a special event. There are also better times than 5pm on Saturday to stage one of them. This odd time was also chosen for the Blackburn- Manchester United match the previous weekend, shown live by Sky, and must surely affect the attendances of the games played earlier in the afternoon.

The search for elbow room at this time of year will not relent and unless sport intends to squabble for every nook and cranny of the spring serious steps will have to be taken. Playing football or rugby in the summer is often discussed for other reasons. Perhaps achieving a better balance of our sporting year to take advantage of the television explosion will prove the most persuasive. August, September and October could use a few big occasions to liven them up.

Rugby league is one sport that could benefit from a move to the summer and thus run its season parallel with that in Australia, giving rise to all sorts of lucrative play-offs opportunities in the autumn. Whether football could benefit from such a step is worthy of a far more comprehensive debate. What is certain is that the riches now rolling in from television demand a little more thought about from our leading sports about a future that may not resemble our past too closely.

MERITS of the justice meted out to Andy Norman are better discussed by those who have kept a closer watch on this curious affair but the manner in which the justice was done is in itself a curio.

Decisive is hardly the word to describe the disciplinary processes of the British Athletics Federation during weeks of ducking and dithering that are not entirely explained by Norman's claimed ill- health. We have no way of telling when they arrived at their decision but I suspect it was a long time before they deigned to tell us and even then they picked a Friday evening on the busiest sporting weekend of the year.

This is an old trick usually employed by governments. Wait until the media has its hands full, drop a bald announcement through their letter box and head for the hills. I trust they don't consider that to be the extent of their duty in this matter or that they have shaken off the many questions still be answered.