BSkyB's sports deals: Television threatens tyranny

Murdoch demands veto rights on player transfers
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The Independent Online
Leading sports figures reacted with horror last night to the latest and most sinister example of the power and control exercised by television.

In a move that will give television an unprecedented say in the way a sport is run, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has asked rugby league players to sign contracts which give his company power of veto over any transfers. The revelation comes just three months before the launch of the rugby league Super League, set up News Corporation at a cost of pounds 89m.

"It's Citizen Kane gone crazy," said Howard Wilkinson, manager of Leeds United and chairman of football's League Managers' Association. "Sport has to maintain its independence if it is to maintain its integrity."

The idea that football could become subject to similar constraints was equally unacceptable to Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. "With the increasing power of television I could imagine there might be an attempt to foist it on us," he said. "But it would have to be over my dead body."

Although the arrival of BSkyB has brought millions of pounds into the game, concerns have been expressed over the degree to which television is dictating terms to football. And the implications of what the rugby league ruling might mean for football - the only other professional team sport with a comparable transfer system - are enormous.

Under the condition which rugby league has been asked to agree to, footballers would likewise not be allowed to transfer from one club to another without the approval of the television company which owns the rights to the sport. So, for example, if television decided it was not in their best interests for Andy Cole to be transferred from Newcastle United to Manchester United, the move would be blocked.

"It doesn't even bear thinking about," Wilkinson said. "The media's impingement on sport, while nowadays seen as necessary, is still, at the end of the day, an impingement. The intrinsic virtue and nature of sport was always supposed to be that it stood outside what other people thought. It was to do with participants and participating - and those people deciding what was right and what was wrong not only for themselves but for future participants.

"In general I would say the marriage between television and football has been a good one. Football's got to move with the times, but only provided it retains control of itself and its integrity."

Television's latest move takes its influence over sport into a whole new dimension. In America, fans are used to American Football games being fitted in round commercial breaks. It was the prospect of increased television advertising revenue that led to the idea, considered by Fifa for last year's World Cup in the United States, that matches might consist of four quarters instead of two halves. As in Mexico in 1986, kick-times at USA '94 were geared to peak viewing times in Europe, so that players frequently had to endure the midday of heat of Florida.

Boxing is so much in the control of television that bouts are now scheduled almost exclusively round what are the perceived wishes of viewers. That means Saturday night bills and frequent delays for the ringside spectator while transmission time comes round. For the boxers themselves, the effect is rather more serious. Colin McMillan, the general secretary of the Professional Boxers' Association, said: "Everything's done to suit the scheduling. If you are waiting for your bout, the order of the bill can be changed at the last minute and that's not the best preparation for you mentally."

More worrying still, according to McMillan, is a culture of brutality in the ring that he believes television hype has helped to create. "TV is looking for sensation, for blood and gore. As a fighter you're bound to be influenced by that. It's sad nowadays that people don't ask if you've boxed well, they ask how quickly you knocked your opponent out. There have been a lot more fatalities and tragedies in recent years and one of the reasons is television."

The advent of BSkyB, which bought the rights to live coverage of the the FA Premier League for pounds 304m in 1992, has radically altered the traditional football calendar. It is a frequent grouse of fans used to full programmes of matches on Saturday afternoons that in the age of Sunday afternoon and Monday night matches they never know now when their team might be playing. BSkyB's pounds 125m purchase of the Endsleigh League rights last month raised the prospect of matches in the First, Second and Third Divisions being played on Friday nights.

Taylor believed a rugby league style move in football would run up against legal barriers. "No such deal could be done through the governing body without the consent of the players' organisation. And no organisation would be prepared to give it.

"I wouldn't be critical of BSkyB because the money's been excellent for the game, the quality of coverage has been very good, and with coverage restricted to satellite channels attendances have not been affected. But on the other hand television is a dangerous monster that can gobble up everything in front of it. It needs to be carefully controlled. Otherwise the see-saw dips towards comercialism, the sport will decline and the sponsors will move on."

"It's going to be much more difficult if television begin to control the game," Taylor said. "We might as well cut out the middle men, ie the administrators. But what they must remember is that once spectators start to be alienated, the sponsors are not going to be interested."

The history of cricket in the last 20 years is dominated by television, the modern era effectively dating from the Packer revolution in the late 1970s when Kerry Packer's Channel 9 in Australia set up an international circuit that put players in pyjamas and gave the public a diet of one- day matches that has gone on unabated to this day.

David Graveney, the former Gloucestershire captain and now general secretary of the Cricketers' Association, welcomed the money television has brought into cricket, particularly in the boost it has given to the grass-roots of the game. "It's now possible to see England Test series overseas ball- by-ball, which we never could before." His main concern in the wake of the rugby league Super League is that with it being scheduled for the summer, attendances at cricket might be affected.

"It will be interesting to see what will happen in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where cricket membership is strong," he said. "I would be concerned at what we were led to believe were traditional winter sports being played in the summer. It would not be the sensible thing for everybody to be competing for the same space."