Forcing our way to forefront of the future

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND's continuing presence in France may carry more threats than promises but it guarantees no respite yet from the most intensive media bombardment even this sporting nation has ever experienced. God help those not afflicted by a passion for sport because, for them, it is going to get worse. This is force-feeding to an extent not even a French goose would recognise.

Among the beneficiaries of these bounteous times, the Government will figure prominently not only for the amount of glory-wallowing that will be available while the going is good but because it is smothering an embarrassing debate on the very subject that is dominating our lives at the moment.

To announce that they were teeing up Test cricket for grabs by satellite television at a time when even the most reluctant citizen was being battered senseless by the World Cup was either a stroke of outrageous luck or a masterly demonstration of the slinky skills at which they are expert. For artfulness, it would match anything yet produced on French grass over the lifetime we've packed into the last 18 days.

With the addition of the day-long pounding of tennis balls at Wimbledon, the clatter of our cricketers' wickets and the thud of new nadirs being reached by our rugby players stranded in the southern hemisphere, there has never been a period in the history of the planet, let alone this small portion of it, when a nation has been subjected to such a relentless coverage of compelling sport.

It has been calculated that during last week there was only five hours in which sport wasn't being shown somewhere on terrestrial television. Not that the true aficionados are complaining; far from it. Tormentingly frustrating as some of it may be for them, the concentration on sport to this unparalleled extent is a delight and at the height of it they are unlikely to give their full attention to a decision capable of restricting visual access to future events. Those who aren't as enraptured, of course, would be feeling so saturated that they couldn't care less if the wholelot was shovelled on to satellite.

What was successfully avoided last week was a full-scale debate on this very important decision. There were so many other live sporting subjects, little time or space was available for anything like a comprehensive reaction. The suspicion that a little subterfuge had taken place was supported by the interpretation in some quarters that this was an attempt to hand a sop to Murdoch's BSkyB channel while the nation's attention was elsewhere.

I don't believe that, because it is all far more complicated than a simple surrender to Sky, but I do wonder why the Government should appear so shamefaced about a decision that will bring benefit to a game that badly needs it. It is not cricket's job to provide free entertainment for the nation and Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, is right to acknowledge this. When it comes to setting priorities about who watches what on which channel, the first consideration must be the sport concerned.

Once that principle is accepted there is an undeniable case for a free market to operate between sport and television and the "Crown Jewels" concept abandoned. Parliament has consistently got this subject wrong and their debates have been typical of the politicians' desire to make generous gestures only when it involves other people paying. They'll do nothing to make a poor pensioner's life more comfortable but they'll die for his right to watch the Rugby League Cup final for nothing.

I have no particular affection for Sky, and I am not a dish-owner, but I recognise the contribution they've made to sports coverage. They've forced the terrestrial channels to take the subject seriously and are not the least reason why the World Cup is being so lavishly covered.

Neither should any sympathy be wasted on the BBC for the loss of so many big events. Whatever John Birt got his knighthood for it was definitely not services to sport. Now that we have overwhelming proof that sport occupies a vital section of the front-line of the battle for viewers, perhaps we'll see more enlightened judgements about it in future. After all, there's nothing to stop the BBC winning the bidding battle for Test match rights.

Digital TV, pay-per-view and all manner of new developments are almost upon us. Many exciting possibilities exist for improving opportunities for watching sport on a screen - wherever that screen is - and we might even get to see a dedicated sports channel for terrestrial viewers. If the World Cup does nothing else it is providing overwhelming evidence of the size and enthusiasm of the sports viewing market once its interest has been aroused and those fashioning the future of television can't ignore it. I knew that the England football team would come in handy one day.

THE AMERICAN referee Esfandiar Baharmast was probably hanging in chains from a dripping wall in the Bastille after awarding the penalty that allowed Norway to draw with Brazil on Tuesday and thus denying the luckless Moroccans a deserved place in the second phase. "It was never a penalty" was the chorus that rang around the world as replays proved conclusively that it wasn't. It was certainly echoing through my pub late that night. You might just have picked out my voice.

Tore Andre Flo, the Norwegian involved with the Brazilian defender Junior Baiano, was accused of diving and even the new Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, was a bit sniffy about it. It just shows how wrong even the mighty can be. A Swedish camera crew had filmed the incident from a different angle and Baiano had clearly tugged Flo off his feet. Baharmast had the culprit bang to rights.

There are few golden moments in the thankless world of refereeing but that was one of them.

DISBELIEF forced me to place pounds 10 on Romania to beat England last Monday. It wasn't so much that I didn't believe in England but that I couldn't believe how the bookmakers could be so daft as to offer 4-1 against Romania who, after all, were the seeds in the group and just the sort of team to give the English defence the willies. The bookies can't be that daft, however, because my modest winnings are infinitesimal against what they will make on the World Cup. It is estimated that a staggering pounds 100m will be staked during the tournament and about pounds 1m of that is clear profit no matter what the results are.

This will come from the nine per cent tax that punters pay on their bets. When that tax is paid on horseracing bets, just under eight per cent is taken by the Government and a fraction more than a penny goes back into racing through the Levy Board. That levy isn't payable on bets on other sports but the bookies still keep it. The betting shops do pay an annual fee to the sports whose fixtures they use but it is reckoned to be a small proportion of the total they keep.

The rest of that phantom levy would do much good if put into schools or youth football. Where it shouldn't go is into the specially reinforced back-pockets of the bookmakers' trousers.