Leading article: A new way of seeing sport

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The Independent Online

There is much indignation at the fact that next week's England versus Ukraine World Cup qualifying match will be shown on the internet and not on television. Critics say it is unfair that those without a computer or internet access, particularly the poor and the elderly, should be excluded from seeing the national team in action. The trouble with that argument is that it is out of date.

Some football matches, it is true, are more than sporting occasions. They are events in a communal calendar. Being able to join in such shared experiences is part of what being a nation is about. There is a strong argument for making certain events available to all citizens through terrestrial television or freeview. But which events constitute an inviolable part of that communion? The FA Cup final, Wimbledon, the Ashes, the Grand National? The Six Nations? The World Cup? Snooker from the Crucible? Where should the line be drawn?

The match against Ukraine is an event of little consequence since England have already qualified for the World Cup but, with England's customary form, it could have been a last-minute nailbiter. Even so, it was to have been broadcast on Setanta, which has fewer viewers than the number who might pay to watch the match on the internet, which is why Setanta went bust. Why is the internet being condemned as a more exclusive option? There seem small grounds to protest about the new arrangement when nobody was protesting about the old one.

There are considerable problems to solve if sport on the internet is to become a norm. Stuttering streaming presents a technical problem. And illegal foreign web channels would threaten the business models which make internet sport economically viable, in the way that illegal downloading threatens the music and movie businesses. Furthermore, watching a match huddled around a laptop, with limited visibility for all but those right in front of the screen, means that the experience will not be so sociable as with a widescreen TV or in a pub.

But these are matters of practicality. The principle of exclusivity, even for England football games, has been conceded. Technology can be expected to disrupt the old ways of watching sport as it has so many of our other ingrained behaviours.

And if sports fans don't like that they should be complaining about something wider than football on the web.