Over the next year or so, Des Lynam is set to become a sort of cathode tube King Lear, presiding over a lost empire

Jim White ON SATURDAY
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was a black day for Rupert Murdoch. His organisation had spent considerable resources buying up the best available talent, and here was someone else moving in and buying it off him. What did they think they were doing? Had they no integrity? Had they no sense of the damage they were inflicting to the seed-bed of the game's future, otherwise known as Mr Murdoch's bank balance?

There was nothing for it but to take the matter to a higher authority. Thus the headline on the back page of the Sun on the morning of 23 December 1999 read: "Murdoch fury as Rockin' Ricky defects from Sky to ITV". Alongside it was a photograph of the multi-national tycoon striding into a terraced building in Lancaster Gate alongside a sheepish looking man with a healthy waistline.

"After all we have been through, I am sorry to have to take Ricky to the British Board of Televised Darts Control," Murdoch was quoted as saying. "But players have got to be made to appreciate that their first loyalty must always be to the television company which signed them up."

It may sound absurd, but that kind of contractual relationship between sportsmen and their paymasters is the logical outcome of Murdoch's insistence this week that players in the new Rugby Super League sign a loyalty clause with him. Notwithstanding the interesting concept of a man whose own commitment to 250 staff and 600,000 readers was such that he closed down Today newspaper overnight insisting on others' loyalty to him, you can only marvel at the speed with which the medium has taken over our sport.

We have now reached the stage where it is television executives who decide how the game should be played, by whom, when and what size the dart-board should be. Indeed the quaintest aspect of those glorious Match of the Seventies shown during the summer was not the cut of Rodney Marsh's shorts, nor the cut and thrust of Ron Harris's tackling, nor even the half-cut George Best, it was the fact that on neither occasion Derby County won the title back then did any footage exist of their critical, trophy-winning game. It seems inconceivable these days that it could happen: a match of such importance played without the presence of the television cameras. In 1995 Wimbledon couldn't play Coventry on a meaningless Monday night in September without Sky devoting four hours to the event.

There is no doubt that the biggest winner in the sporting world this year has been television. Or rather certain television companies. The manner in which the BBC has been effectively asset-stripped as its major sports have disappeared off in pursuit of a large cheque has been one of the less edifying sights of the last twelve months. Over the next year or so, Des Lynam is set to become a sort of cathode tube King Lear, presiding over a lost empire, howling against the injustices wrought upon his crumbling authority. Well, as it's Des, perhaps not howling, more wise-cracking.

Not that it is always in a sport's interests to chase the money. Those now selling themselves to the narrow-casting of satellite, or worse, cable, rather than the universality of terrestrial television, should bear in mind the experience of Lennox Lewis. There is a plausible theory that he did not capture the British public's imagination because he fought on Sky, with its limited audience, rather than BBC or ITV. Now Lewis might say he earned his crust and popularity doesn't pay the bills. Except it does, particularly when it comes to exploiting your face commercially after retirement.

The influence television exerts over sport, however, is not limited to control over its practices and practitioners. Our attitude to the big items of sports news in 1995 was almost entirely moulded by whether they were caught on camera or not. The Cantona leap was so compelling mainly because it was so clearly filmed: no cameras were there the day Dixie Dean clipped a lippy fan, thus questions were not asked in Parliament about it. And the riot at Lansdowne Road hung like a cloud in the memory mainly because of the footage. Here were two of the most depressing sights of the sporting year: fascist thugs bent on ugly destruction and Matt Le Tissier trudging off dejectedly when the game was abandoned, never to play again in an England shirt.

It was the filmed evidence that made those incidents so much more dramatic. Would Denis Wise have been acquitted if the taxi driver had closed circuit television coverage of all his fares? Would anyone really have cared that an obscure American tennis player called Jeff Tarango walked off court during Wimbledon had the BBC's lenses not been there to record the every last umpire-bound expletive that proceeded it? More significantly, is it beyond the bounds of reason to suggest boxing would now be banned had news of the fatal beating of James Murray (and the riot in the crowd that followed it) been relayed by film rather than series of smudgy stills?

Which is something Rupert Murdoch understands very well: he who pays the piper plays the tune. And, more importantly, he who has the cameras there gets the news story.

Comments