Sport must keep hold of the controls

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The Independent Online
HOW MUCH less of a stupefied lather we would be witnessing in the world of rugby if Rupert Murdoch looked more like Father Christmas, all benign and bountiful. Old-fashioned folk as we mostly are in sport, we do not react kindly when even someone within a game attempts to disturb the long-established order but rage and panic ensue when a stranger muscles in with motives that cannot be immediately recognised as impeccable.

Not that we would dare suggest that there is anything amiss with Murdoch's move to annex the Rugby Football League or the suddenness of its execution. He has built his empire and reputation on the ability to spot an opportunity and to seize it swiftly and decisively.

There is no evidence that he cares a jot for rugby league or, for that matter, rugby union, whose quaking at his very presence betrays how flimsy are the remaining threads of that game's loyalty and unity. Certainly, an addiction to golf is not behind his so-far unsuccessful attempt to set up a world tour with Greg Norman at its helm. Only occasionally does he act like a football fan but his BSkyB channel bought up the Premiership and where he stands on boxing is of less account than the fact that Sky have cornered the best of the sport over the next few years.

What we do know is that the games of which Murdoch is overwhelmingly fond are played in the business arenas of the world where they don't have referees. From those tussles he has drawn the necessary might to compile a compendium of sports that will be the foundation of his pay-to-view television realm. Just as he has used sport to rescue Sky from a perilous start, so he is positioning his forces to take advantage of the day soon coming when we will have to cough up ready cash to watch top sporting events.

The number he is able to buy and the amount of control he can exercise over them depends entirely on the sports concerned. You can't blame Murdoch for going about his business but you can blame any sport that flings itself at him without careful consideration for all the implications. As far as pay TV is concerned, Murdoch may be the only player in town at the moment but it won't stay that way. There will be other deals available, and perhaps even the terrestrial channels might shake themselves into some of that action.

Armchair turnstiling, if I might call it that, has been a long time coming and no one should be shocked either by its arrival or the principle behind it Big-time sport derives most of its income from television and will need an increasing amount in the future. In a competitive field, the more appealing and dramatic sports will dominate the market. No longer will programme controllers decree what we watch and when we watch it. The purchasing preferences of the viewer will decide which are our favourite sports.

There can be few quarrels with the decision to switch the proposed Super League to the summer. That move has long looked capable of bringing many benefits to rugby league. But the RFL made a serious mistake if it thought that plans to merge clubs in order to meet the slimmed down total of only 14 teams would avoid a riot.

With Keighley already on their way to the courts and the barricades going up in south Yorkshire, Manchester and Cumbria, there's discomfort ahead. However much the game may need a pruning, there are surely more imaginative ways, especially with a large amount of money coming into the game. It is easy to scoff at tradition but football and rugby clubs are like churches; most of us have one to which we feel we belong. We never go, but the moment it is threatened we rise in protective hordes. I won't dwell on the moral of that, merely on the fact of it. Murdoch might have needed a quick decision in order to support his raging battle against the Australian Rugby League but the game needed more time to reflect. We are not advised whether the £75m deal gave Murdoch's negotiators the right to dictate who those 14 teams should be. Did they leave it to the RFL to select them or did they present a list of where they wanted them based in order to get maximum paying viewers?

Furthermore, how much freedom has Murdoch's outfit gained to tinker with the game if there appears a need to improve its profitability? Have time- outs been discussed? After the proposed two years free of relegation, will the team or teams nominated for the drop be decided on through their performances or on the number of viewers prepared to pay to watch them?

No doubt, the RFL were mindful that, if they didn't come to a quick agreement, Murdoch might have set up a rival league like he has in Australia where 100 top players have been bought up at a cost of £250m. Would our players have resisted similar temptation? The history of sport is dotted with unofficial "circuses" and rebel tours to places like South Africa. It is not in the nature of a professional sportsman to reject money, to support anything except themselves and their families. But I doubt if he would have found enough to fill 14 teams.

For all its economic troubles, rugby league is not in a bad state. It has won a large army of new followers all over the country since Sky have been televising two matches weekly. The game has a profitable future and the people who run it have a duty to guard its traditions as well as taking advantage of its potential. You don't save a game by selling it.

THE ability of sports writers to get carried away with extravagant prose of a sickening nature is not confined to the United States. But at the US Masters in Augusta last Sunday the wave of emotion that greeted Ben Crenshaw's victory sent hardened Brits scuttling for the sanctity of the bar.

Crenshaw, as you probably know, acted as pall-bearer at the funeral of his mentor Harvey Penick just before the Masters began. He was fully entitled to the tears he shed when the winning putt went in the hole. It was a very touching moment. But American golf writers embarked on a frenzy of hyperbole that could have been aimed only at God's Intro of the Year award.

From Newsday we had: "Reaching down from the brilliant Georgia sky, the hands of fate wrapped Ben Crenshaw in an interlocking grip, firmly directing every swing, gently guiding every putt."

The New York Daily News put it thus: "Through a clear blue sky, with a half moon hanging lazily over Augusta National, Harvey Penick had the best seat in the house."

But the Charlotte Observer provided my favourite: "Ben Crenshaw leaned over in a golden sunlit Sunday afternoon with his head in his hands, his heart in his throat and his soul in the heavens."

THIS is the time of year when First Division rugby league players vote for their choice as best player of the season for the Man of Steel award. They have to write their selections and post them off to league headquarters in Leeds. At the moment, front runners for the award are Wigan's second row Denis Betts and his team-mate Va'aiga Tuigamala. The smart money is on Betts for the title. The number of players who can spell Tuigamala is not reckoned to be high enough.