Beeb reduced to a little picture show

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The Independent Online
W E MUST brace ourselves to contemplate a future in which sports coverage by the British Broadcasting Corporation will fade into a flickering shadow of its former glories. The proud, some might say haughty, organisation which has ushered us into an armchaired grandstand for some of the world's greatest sporting events over the past 50 years will eventually be reduced to the television equivalent of drilling a hole in the fence so we can have a peep.

When I say "we", I mean those who will be still committed to the corporation after it has been stripped of direct access to all the big arenas; a viewing public who will, by then, consist of the last of the stubborn objectors to being forced into buying a dish and others, including me, who've got a bloody great tree in the way of the satellite.

The BBC were presenting the brave face of the hard-done-by last week when news broke that they were to lose the FA Cup final to ITV after their contract ends in 1997. A delay in confirmation suggested that a last-ditch defence was being mounted but I fear that the BBC's role as official custodian of Britain's sporting treasures continues to be meekly surrendered.

The fact that the historical climax to the domestic football season will be moving to another terrestrial channel, and therefore not out of the sight of ordinary viewers, tended to placate the outcry, but the television deals being done with bewildering speed last week suggest that ITV will be merely minding the event for the day when BSkyB have enough subscribers to justify adding it to their dazzling menu.

By then, Sky should be pumping out live football on a scale undreamed of back in the old black-and-white days when the Cup final was just about the only televised live game we were allowed to see on the grounds that any more would dull our appetite for the real thing. While Sky's swoop for the Endsleigh League at a cost of pounds 125m was still being digested - or, with 60 extra live games a season, indigested - they were in the early stages of negotiating a new deal with the Premier League that will enable them eventually to offer every Premiership game live to your hearth.

All that is needed is a pre-paid card and the match of your choice will appear before your eyes. This manifestation of every football fan's fantasy will no doubt bring a new crop of misgivings that will need to be addressed. More immediately important is the chill wind of relegation now blowing unchecked through Broadcasting House.

There was a sadly prophetic air about Sportsnight on Wednesday. Of boxing and snooker was there plenty but of football fresh from that night was there none. ITV had the lot. A temporary deficiency we can be sure but was this a disturbing glimpse into the future. The Beeb will still be allowed FA Cup highlights and there will be other bits and pieces they can pick up on the cheap.

But can we hope for anything better than for them to be reduced to selling second-hand goals; purveyors of goalmouth thrills, only slightly used? If they volunteer for that role without a genuine fight, how long before they lose everything? Wimbledon, Test matches, the Grand National . . . as the events disappear one by one, so will the need to retain Des Lynam and the high standard of coverage over which he presides.

This is the most serious threat. I don't side with those who bleat about the Beeb's God-given right to these events but there is reason for us to get anxious about the subsequent loss of quality as all our prized events are gathered under one ultra-commercial roof.

This battle cannot be fought on the emotional but highly doubtful grounds that we are entitled to a free look at our best sporting action. The Old Vic, Covent Garden or the Albert Hall might claim to be just as important a part of our heritage as Wembley, Lord's or the Centre Court but I don't remember anyone clamouring for the right to see activities at those venues televised into their homes free of charge.

Neither do I notice any declarations from the sports concerned accepting it as part of their patriotic duty to accept whatever the BBC can afford to pay for their showpiece occasions. It was only a few years ago that the BBC and ITV co- operated to keep down the price they paid for football. You cannot blame the game for taking advantage of the free market that now exists.

As for the BBC, we don't expect to see John Birt chained to the railings outside Parliament in protest at this sporting exodus. Indeed, he might be secretly pleased at losing an expensive drain on resources he feels could be better used elsewhere. If I have misjudged him, I plead forgiveness on the grounds that his despair over the situation has yet to reach me. When it comes to resistance, Sky would have more trouble taking lollipops from a toddler. There is only one way to fight Sky: use money. And the BBC could raise it by employing the very resource they are allowing to trickle through their fingers. They produce the finest sporting programmes in the world and have an audience Sky would die for. This is a highly saleable commodity. If the Government want to preserve sport for the nation all they have to do is change the Corporation's charter to allow them to have sponsors for sporting events.

Furthermore, if Sky are accumulating exclusive rights in preparation for pay-per-view, why can't the BBC plan to provide such a service? From who would you prefer to buy a football match? These suggestions are sacrilege, of course. So is losing the Cup final without a fight.

I F THE Chancellor wanted to alleviate the impact of the lot- tery on racing, and I don't know why he felt obliged to, the 1 per cent reduction in betting tax he announced in the Budget should have gone to the Horseracing Board to distribute. No doubt the 5,000 pleading letters he received from bookies persuaded him to let them in on the act and the result is fierce argument about how to share the pounds 65m involved. The lottery is a boon to good causes and even the football pools plough money back into the game. What do the bookies do for the country that deserves help? They probably think the National Debt is what they're owed after Aintree last April.

E XCITEMENT at having the first British world rallying champion has given way to astonishment that the feat is going to help make Colin McRae so incredibly rich. The previously unknown Scot was already a tax exile before he accelerated into the nation's attention by winning the RAC Rally.

Now it is predicted that the 27-year-old McRae will become the greatest rally driver of all time. Next year his earnings could reach pounds 5m which would carry him way above the top British sports millionaire of 1995, who happens to be Damon Hill. In my ignorance, I had always thought rallying was a very poor relative of Formula One racing and that hurtling around bends on muddy woodland tracks would qualify you for only one occupation. Drivers of getaway cars obviously receive more money than I imagined.