Battering ram on horns of a dilemma

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That old flatterer Rupert Murdoch brought a blush to sporting cheeks last week with a compliment that sounded as if it could come only from the throbbing depths of a fervent heart.

"Sport," he told members of his vast organisation, "absolutely overpowers film and everything else in the entertainment industry." The words were poetry to those have long sighed that same sentiment. Is it not the message we've been murmuring for years?

Sport is life, sport is drama, sport is the only truth. Now we were hearing confirmation from the world's leading media mogul.

Cynics might there and then have observed that it was only through an oversight that Murdoch neglected to follow his praise of sport with the words "... and it's a lot bloody cheaper."

Whether or not cost enters his assessment, however, there was to be a snag; a wasp in the bouquet. When we searched the rest of the speech to see what drives his urge to share this admiration of sport with the rest of the world, we looked in vain for an expression of awe of the boxers whose painful exertions he loves to obtain exclusively. Nowhere was there a word of wonder for the live thrills of the football Premiership he alone has purloined; neither did he explain what particular facet of the game first attracted him to the spectacular ferocity of rugby league or which burgeoning expression of power and grace prompted him to annexe the new world of professional rugby union.

Instead, he revealed to his admiring employees: "We have the long-term rights in most countries to major sporting events and we will be doing in Asia what we intend to do elsewhere in the world, that is, to use sports as a 'battering ram' and a lead offering in all our pay television operations."

Is that how he sees our intriguing, breath-catching whirl of athletic endeavour? As a battering ram? It will come as no surprise to those who have monitored Murdoch's remorseless march that his use of sport is based solely on convenience but never has he stated his perception of the activity, or his purpose in using it, so graphically. It must have sent a shiver rippling down the spines of all those sporting administrators who have to rise an hour earlier every morning in order to count the money that satellite television has brought them.

They might find consolation in the fact that Murdoch is behaving no differently than in the other areas of our lives he has so successfully invaded. Indeed, the battering ram has long been the favourite weapon in the Murdoch armoury. The only difference has been the variation of its composition.

When he began his battle for domination of the British tabloid newspaper, the battering ram was made of several tons of page three breasts. When he was boosting the Sunday Times circulation it was made of all the extra newsprint with which he battered the nation's letter-boxes. And in his more recent subtleties on behalf of the Times, it was comprised of 10p pieces. Now the world's prime flesh and blood is being hurled at the defences of his competitors. Generous recompense is being paid for their services but it would be wise to consider what happens to battering rams when the last door has been reduced to sawdust.

Murdoch must be credited with the vision to recognise the power of audience attraction that sport possessed. The dozy terrestrial channels were busy ignoring that potential before Murdoch appeared. He didn't need a battering ram to subdue ITV who for 20 years had been placing more faith in old Lassie films than on sport. And although the BBC were fully committed to the quality of their sports coverage, the range and quantity was woefully inadequate to ward off Murdoch's dedicated sports channels.

There is no doubt that the arrival of satellite television has done more for the genuine fans than anything in sporting history. Apart from the excellent service received by Sky dish-holders, cable-receivers and those who use pubs and clubs, the terrestrial channels have been scrambling to improve their output.

The sports have benefited by a massive increase in their income with the promise of more to come. But the downside of the Murdoch millions is beginning to manifest itself. Last weekend's 11.15am kick-off for the Manchester United-Liverpool Premiership match for no other apparent reason than Sky's schedules was disquieting.

The pall of smoke that still hangs over the battle for the ownership of rugby league is another sorry sight. Where once was a secure and comfortable game overseen by the governing bodies in Britain and Australia there is now strife and, inevitably, more grief to come. Rugby union has been driven into civil war by even the prospect of Sky's money. Heaven knows what will happen when they eventually get it.

Murdoch was referring to a new campaign - a battle for sport on pay television which is liable to become more intense when the digital process arrives to complicate our lives with viewing options beyond imagination. BBC and ITV will use it to attempt to recover the ground they have lost to Murdoch and there will be new rivals, not least the sports themselves.

Manchester United plan their own pay TV service, as do Formular One, and sensible sports will henceforth take a little more care with any televsion deals. There's never been any doubt that Murdoch regards them as mere tools in his conquest of the world but he has made a mistake in blatantly bragging about it. I predict that sport can expect a trifle less battering ram and a touch more buttering up.

It sounds like the sort of hoax that would appeal to the Sun. Sega, the video game people, have approached the Referees' Association with an offer to sponsor the red and yellow cards their members are wont to wave. Their name at the top of the cards would not be seen by the crowd or even by television viewers but their identity would register with the players concerned and a video game might help them while away those boring hours when they are under suspension.

As if that doesn't seem far-fetched, Sega have promised that in addition to the sponsorship money they will reward those referees who make most frequent use of their cards. A totting up system will bring a bonus to those refs who show the most cards. The top card flashers will be offered holidays in Florida to help them recover from their exertions. It is totally daft, of course, but it is fascinating to imagine the effect on the behaviour of players when they know that their referee that day is only two bookings short of a trip to Disneyland.

Racing was rocked by a wildcat strike by 21 jockeys at Haydock on Wednesday. They considered the slippery course was so dangerous they refused to carry on and the stewards were forced to abandon the card after one race. Since it was their necks at stake - not to mention those of their four-legged friends - and they were all going to lose money as result, the jockeys' opinion deserved to be taken seriously but everyone else was furious and they may be in trouble with the Jockey Club.

"These jockeys are getting too big for their boots," snorted one owner. As Confucius would have said: They are small boots that jockeys are too big for.