Sport on TV: Maloney, baloney and the hard sell

FORGET Eubank v Benn. The key fight this week took place in BBC 1's Sportsnight studio. In the blue corner, the boxing manager Frank Maloney, several thousand pounds heavier after last weekend's Bruno-Lewis bout. Opposite him, the challenger - plucky Des Lynam from Shepherd's Bush, not a scrapper by nature but going into this one with a bit of a grudge.

Was it right, Lynam asked Maloney, to sell the television rights to a major British sporting event like Bruno v Lewis, not to the BBC or ITV, but to Sky, where 'the mass of the British public did not get a chance to see it'? And before Maloney could parry, Lynam followed up with a cheeky one to the kidneys: 'It's right for your bank balance . . .'

Not so much as a flinch from Maloney. Of course it was right, he said: 'Sky came to us with such a good offer.' Somehow, you felt, the broader issue was being missed here. Lynam moved in again, arguing along the lines that, even if the poverty-stricken BBC could only stump up a book token and a Grandstand sweat- shirt, there were surely compensations for the fighters - such as the opportunity to perform where the nation could see them and learn about them. Maloney would have none of it. Sky paid more, and what's national interest when set against hard cash?

When the priorities of people like Frank Maloney have finally reduced terrestrial sports coverage to a handful of amateur golf tournaments and a monthly schools athletics round-up, all that will be left for the BBC and ITV is previewing. Still, at least this is something Sportsnight does well. Last Wednesday's schedules offered the programme nothing more stimulating than results from some rather flat Coca-Cola Cup ties and one grim and rainy rugby league match. Yet Sportsnight contrived to appear action-packed simply by looking ahead. We got a preview of the Netherlands v England football match and an analysis of next year's heavyweight bouts, some of which - who knows? - the BBC might be able to afford.

Actually, 'analysis' may be the wrong word. Lennox Lewis was in the studio for this segment, in a pair of shades and a terrifyingly loud shirt. How did he see his chances against Tommy Morrison? 'I just see myself knocking out Morrison,' he said, seated but still managing to roll his shoulders like someone coming out for Round One. And Riddick Bowe? 'I'm 20 times better,' said Lewis. We're used to boxers getting psyched up and lippy in the days before fights. But for merely hypothetical bouts? Months away? Lewis represents the new breed - permanently hyped, dangerously primed. 'People stop me on the street and say, 'You're terrific' ,' he added, inconsequentially. Then he plugged his new autobiography. The meek shall inherit the earth, but they shall have walked off with precious few WBC titles.

Contrast the tone of the Netherlands v England preview. It's odd to find oneself commending footballers for decorum, but at least, in this context, they allow the old- fashioned possibility that the opposition might present something of a challenge. The Dutch star Frank Rijkaard appeared with his striking coiffure - not so much a hairdo as a burst bag of pasta spirals - and confessed that the Netherlands were always nervous about England. Given that, as he spoke, the best part of England's strikeforce was hobbling about in casualty wards up and down the land, the possibility lingered that this was some sort of elaborate Dutch tease. But he certainly sounded sincere, concluding with the remark, 'The ball is round, as we say in Holland.' Good point.

Meanwhile, over on a similarly preview-laden Carlton Sport (ITV, Wednesday), the week ahead was sounding pretty Biblical. Assuming you got through 'Judgement Day' (last night's Benn and Eubank fight), you can now make 'a date with destiny' (The Netherlands v England). If you had a pound for every time the presenter Matthew Lorenzo mentioned that this game would be 'live and exclusive and FREE on ITV', you would probably have enough to outbid the channel for the rights. Under pressure from Sky, terrestrial telly is talking itself up like a boxer. These days, it's what costs nothing that gets the hardest sell.

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