Money talking in sport

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The Independent Online
In most national newspapers it is a short step from the business section to what has been described as the toy department. This convenient juxtaposition of financial and sporting affairs grows increasingly appropriate.

It is unusual today to scan the sports pages without being hit between the eyes by a headline that refers to multiples of seven figures. Contemplation of this trend suggests that aspiring sportswriters should cut their teeth on the share prices. More than a working knowledge of simple arithmetic is sure to be required of them.

After all, practically all the burning issues in sport now are financial. Even the urge to take up a game has become the urge to make a great deal of loot.

Wimbledon, once as formal as Burke's Peerage, gleefully announces prize- money for this year's championships that relief workers in Rwanda must think obscene. The total put out by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer in conflict for control of rugby league would alleviate widespread suffering.

The fact that we have seen in our time - in the last 10 years only - the great advance of market forces in sport is no guarantee that it will go on and on but it is unavoidably depressing. A personal lamentation is that sport pays exaggerated respect to the arts and skills of those whose only aim is to exploit it commercially.

It remains a great question whether this will provide the proper magic for taking sport healthily into the next millenium. I have my doubts. Too much of what is going out there smacks of expediency and greed. There is another large question. It is whether sport will fall completely into the hands of television.

We are confronted every day with new facts about sport, new audacities in propoganda that rob us of lifelong assumptions. There is the solid, objective, and bitter truth that sport has been taken over by men in suits who have no respect for tradition. Recently, when speaking out against a particularly hideous commercial intrusion, I was accused of living in the past. Wrong. It is the future that concerns me.

A belief still strong in the 1960s was that live television would be the ruination of football. "Over my dead body,'' the then Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, said. A similar point of view was held by people in boxing. Now football is shown to the point of boredom and professional boxing is entirely dependent on television funding.

Nothing illustrates this better than the controversy presently ripping through rugby league. Secret deals with star players, clubs threatened with extinction through merger, a game torn from its roots.

We're talking about naked expansionism. It's an old clich, but infuriatingly enough it's a true one, to say that people become obsessed with the idea that progress is inevitable. But there has to be more than massive injections of capital and the influence of market forces. I'm not that much of a pessimist to imagine that sport will snuff out as public entertainment. However, the philosophy that drives it is worrying.

The colour of money leaps at us from every direction. Half-decent footballers are rewarded out of all proportion to ability and bought for ludicrously inflated fees. Last week, an obese 46-year old has-been, George Foreman, collected $10m for defending the International Boxing Federation heavyweight championship. Sky television has collared the viewing rights to Britain's bext boxers by throwing £50m at the London promoter, Frank Warren.

Going back 36 years, I became involved seriously in a successful attempt to free footballers from an insidious retain and transfer system and a maximum wage. It was a just cause that eventually received considerable attention in newspapers. However, my sports editor of that time took a lot of persuading. "People want to read about sport, not pay packets,'' he said. His great concern was to preserve, in the jet age, values he grew up with. Today, no popular print would give him house room.