Free market liberates dreams of glory

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The Independent Online
ELDERLY folk bracing themselves for the next cold snap, the homeless, the occupants of hospital corridors and the downtrodden throughout the nation would have been considerably heartened last week that their right to watch the FA Cup final for nothing was being fought over so fearlessly by leading Members of Parliament of all persuasions.

There is no more breathtaking sight than politicians in full flight when they espy a vote-catching bandwagon that can be mounted at no cost or pain to themselves or their parties. No one exudes righteousness quite so admirably, especially when they can pose as protectors of our rights, heritage and traditions, even those we never knew we had.

The target of their brave defiance, of course, is Rupert Murdoch and the policy of the BSkyB satellite television company to buy every piece of sporting action it can lay its hands on. But if anyone is to blame for allowing Murdoch to acquire the media power that allows him to do this, it is the occupants of Parliament themselves, most of whom have been too terrified of upsetting him to impose any restriction on his empire-building.

What tempts them into aggressive postures now is the need to acknowledge a gathering public disquiet about the numbers of sports under Murdoch's wing and the fact that they can take an all-party approach that will minimise the risk of drawing flak from his newspapers. Their crusade, however, is aimed in the wrong direction. There is reason enough to worry about Murdoch's arrival as a sporting power, but mainly in the long-term effect his priorities may have on the shape and integrity of the games he controls.

What should not be stopped is the operation of a free market which benefits three distinct groups: 1 The genuine sports fans who are happy to pay for their spectating pleasures. 2 The governing bodies which have a right to get the highest possible income for their sport. 3 The sportsmen and women without whose skill and effort our major sporting events wouldn't stay major for very long.

The argument that the nation at large has some divine right to help itself to the choicest offerings of the aforementioned does not really stand up. Those who think otherwise were given extra ammunition on Thursday when it was reported that the upcoming Tyson-Bruno fight may be shown on Sky pay-per-view at pounds 20 a time.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's shadow National Heritage secretary, expressed alarm at the news. I find it alarming that a senior politician into whose official ambit sport may well fall after the next election should be so indignant at the very idea of being asked to pay to watch a sporting contest. They've been doing it for some time, Jack. Unless, of course, you have evidence that they got in free at the Colosseum.

For anyone hare-brained enough to go to the actual fight, pounds 20 wouldn't get you within 100 yards of the ring, so where do people get this notion that TV viewers are entitled to a buckshee seat? There is the very good point that those who have already paid a subscription to Sky might have the right to be peeved at being asked to fork out more, but this comes under the heading of optional extras. Sky might be surprised at how optional this is.

The politicians who raised their voices at last week's seminar on televised sport offered some strange reasoning behind their opposition to its being shown on satellite television. It wasn't enough for them to hear representatives of our major sports saying how necessary Sky's intervention had been. Gordon McKeag, president of the Football League, said that their deal with Sky was the difference between survival and extinction for many clubs.

Sebastian Coe, on the other hand, said that the disappearance of sport to Sky robs millions of children of their role models. I had the advantage of a boyhood spent before television anchored itself in the living room and I would defy any snotty-nosed kid of today to have more sporting heroes than I did. I had to queue and jostle to see them in the flesh, but they were all the more real for that.

Another MP said he was distressed that sports representatives seemed to talk about nothing but money. This was rich from a place where the pursuit of a few extra bob has been elevated to an art. The right of sportsmen to earn a fair share of the cash they generate should not be treated as some abhorrent by-product of its popularity.

Rugby union, for instance, having just turned professional, will be tempted by the money Sky is offering for the Five Nations' Championship. This event, say the MPs, should be added to the other "listed" events - the Olympics, the World Cup, FA Cup, domestic Test cricket, Wimbledon, the Grand National and the Derby. In other words, those controlling and taking in those events should sacrifice their commercial value for the sake of the nation.

This is a nonsense that they would not dare apply to any other walk of life. Take the Grand National, for instance. Did the nation come to its rescue when it was in mortal danger 20 years ago? Of course not. The world's greatest steeplechase exists because of Aintree, the sponsors, the owners of the horses and the bravery of the jockeys who ride them. How dare anyone restrict the amount of money they can raise for their efforts.

There is only one way to combat Murdoch, and that is to allow the BBC the financial power to bid against him - preferably by allowing them to accept sponsorship for programmes. I fancy, however, that if Murdoch attempted to buy EastEnders, the BBC would put up a much better defence than they have on sport's behalf.

And if I was Murdoch, I'd offer to televise proceedings in the House of Commons for pounds 50m a year - that would end the argument.

BEFORE Christmas I raised objections to the main sports personality of the year awards being decided a month before the year ended. It stopped Michael Atherton getting deserved recognition for his magnificent double- century against South Africa at the beginning of December. As things turned out, it would have been a more cheerful reminder of the tour than the one he will be bringing home with him.

Now comes the complaint that man of the match awards are also being made too soon. In rugby league's Regal Trophy final, the press had to vote 15 minutes before the end and the excellent Keiron Cunningham was given the award. Unfortunately, Wigan's even more excellent Henry Paul then proved the match-winner and should really have been man of the match.

If it is a year or a match, the adjudicators should wait until the end. This should apply to the century, too. Unfortunately, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics are also suffering from premature encapsulation. They have already annointed Ferenc Puskas as Goalscorer of the Century. The portly Hungary and Real Madrid star scored 780 goals in 823 appearances over a career of 23 years; and he didn't have a right foot worth speaking about.

It is an excellent choice, but may I remind the hitherto unknown IFFHS that four, some may say five, years remain before the end of the century. Give Andy Cole a chance, for heaven's sake.

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