RFU urged not to let TV undermine tradition

David Llewellyn hears a wide variety of figures give their views at yesterday's seminar on the future of rugby union
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English rugby yesterday received a warning from an unlikely quarter that it had to tread carefully when allowing its game to be televised to a limited audience.

While the Celtic nations this week signed lucrative broadcasting deals with terrestrial television companies, England have committed themselves to a five-year contract with BSkyB.

The warning about the dangers of deals with satellite or cable television companies came from a leading representative of a sport which pioneered razzmatazz, hype and schedules tailored to suit television companies - American football.

Gridiron has seen it all, done it all, marketed the videos and the whole range of leisurewear and now, by all accounts, is ready to trumpet the pitfalls, problems and growing pains of professionalism to rugby union. And there were plenty of willing ears in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London yesterday at a seminar on the future of rugby, organised by Rugby News magazine in association with The Independent.

A turbulent season off the field in the English game faces further storms. A third special general meeting in 15 months is scheduled for next Sunday where, once again, the Rugby Football Union's authority and constitution will be challenged. Yesterday's conference, which featured a series of eminent speakers, was, therefore, a welcome forum for views to be expressed and potential problems to be highlighted. And the National Football League has had its problems.

Dan Rooney is well qualified to speak authoritatively on running a professional game. Since graduating from college as a business major, he has worked in the family firm, the Pittsburgh Steelers gridiron team. He has seen at first hand the issues raised by professionalism and, while concluding that it was no bad thing, he still made some pertinent points.

"Television has brought sport into everyone's living-room," Rooney said. "But rugby union must remain in control. You have a marvellous tradition and I think we owe your game a debt of gratitude since I believe rugby is the root of gridiron.

"In the 1930s, Pittsburgh Steelers had to pay a local radio station to cover their matches. In the 1960s, by which time television was involved, broadcasting revenue to the NFL was $300,000 with spectating figures for the whole season in all matches at around one million.

"By the 1997 season, revenue from television had gone up to $39m with attendances around 23 million.

"These days television is responsible for the greatest slice of revenue; some two-thirds of the NFL's income is TV-generated. Gate money is less than one-third, while stadium revenue through concessions, franchises and marketing, is increasing."

While accepting the value of television as a source of income and acknowledging that satellite TV is able to reach places around the world where grid- iron had never before been seen, Rooney pointed out that satellite dishes were still not that numerous.

He added: "Don't isolate your local [terrestrial] networks. Games must remain on local television. When a Steelers match is being shown on cable, it is broadcast simultaneously by a terrestrial station. TV fans are not always prepared to pay to view."

Rooney felt that television wanted to promote sport. "TV is not the enemy," he said. "But they have to make programming good. It is an excellent medium for creating new spectators. But the television package that is negotiated must leave control with the governing body. The sport must be responsible, for example, for the timing of the game and for the number of interruptions for commercial breaks."

Rooney advocated that the leading clubs and governing bodies should negotiate together for the benefit of the brotherhood. That theme of esprit de corps was echoed by another distinguished speaker, the former Australian captain Nick Farr-Jones, who lamented, among other things in the new professional era, the passing of the traditional Australian green and gold strip. Farr-Jones, now based in France and working in banking, described the new version as: "a vomit of green and gold splashed on white," adding "that it is what our new sponsor insisted on".

Farr-Jones also feared burn-out in the modern player. "I understand that the need to play more games to generate more income," he said. "But there are now around 12 to 14 internationals a year for Australia.

"And look at training. We did three nights a week and perhaps a little extra on our own. My state, New South Wales, brought its players together in October, four to five months before the start of the new season. And these guys are expected to train 10 times a week. I believe this is overkill."

While stating that the modern-day game is in good shape, Farr-Jones expressed his fear for what happens when a player retires, particularly if the player's only qualification is playing rugby. This was a theme echoed by the former England full-back Jon Callard, who called for youngsters to be encouraged to stay on at school and then to train for another profession while in full-time employment with professional rugby clubs.

The conference was welcomed by Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary. "I think this should become an annual affair," he said. "It gives a lot of sections of the game an ideal opportunity to express and share their views. It is also a good chance for the RFU to signal its achievements and stance in the game, particularly in a time when there is so much misinformation around."