No more Davids, only Goliaths

David Aaronovitch fears that the gap between rich and poor in sport is becoming an abyss
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The Independent Online
"They're by far the greatest team the world has ever seen," sang the 2,000 blue-and-white-clad fans sitting in the corner of the north London stadium last Wednesday night. Though the venue was White Hart Lane ("world-famous home of the Spurs"), the team that these supporters were so passionate about was Chester City, currently riding high at the top of the Endsleigh League Third Division. At the end of the match they filed back to their coaches, completely undismayed by the fact that the greatest team in the world had just been thumped 4-0 in the Coca Cola Cup.

By the next morning some of the least hungover among them must have been digesting the news of the Jean-Marc Bosman case and its possible implications for clubs such as their own. What did they make of the dire warnings being sounded that the likely death of the transfer fee system would sink many of the minnows in the sea of professional soccer, about how clubs previously kept alive by selling their best players would no longer be able to cash in? Perhaps they took it fatalistically, reflecting that this was but another step in the rapid process that has seen the gap between rich and poor in sport become an abyss.

Commercial sponsorship of events and teams has, of course, been going on for years. But today sports fans in Britain and in many other parts of the world are living through the early stages of a revolution in how almost all spectator sports are financed, played, administered and - most important - watched. As with most political revolutions, this one is being led by a minority who claim to act on behalf of a passive majority, its progress has been sudden and dramatic, and its final effect - for good or ill - is very difficult to predict.

The revolutionaries are the satellite television channels, the commercial sponsors and the Young Turks of professional sports administration. They have pushed at the palace doors of the old sports establishments, once so solid and permanent-seeming, run by fusty semi-amateur bureaucrats without reference to public or players - and discovered them to be rotten.

One by one the bastions are falling. Last spring rugby league succumbed to the advances of Rupert Murdoch, and opted for a new reduced-size Super- League, partially funded by his News Corporation. Immediately following the money-spinning Rugby Union World Cup in South Africa this summer, the sport's governing body declared the days of amateurism over. Yesterday the England fly-half Rob Andrew signed a five-year contract worth three- quarters of million pounds to join Newcastle Rugby Club, which had just been bought by the millionaire boss of Newcastle United Football Club, Sir John Hall. Hall's operation now runs Newcastle's soccer, rugby union and ice-hockey, as well as a motor-racing team. His motto is: "The market will find a way."

Karl Marx would have been proud of the sports revolution, conforming as it does to his notions of the interrelationship between economics and political change. For while the language of the revolutionaries has all been about modernisation, the driving force has been money.

It is the desire on the part of large numbers of people to watch sport - and their preparedness to pay for the privilege - that is defining the future shape of the sports world. And the economics can be staggering. Millions of Americans were prepared to pay pounds 28 to watch just one programme - the recent Tyson fight - on television. Similarly, something like 3 million Britons will happily fork out pounds 500 a year to subscribe to specialist sports channels. With money like that at their disposal, the providers of the programming are becoming the main power in the sporting world. Their payments for sports coverage are lining the pockets of sports federations, big clubs and, eventually, the players themselves.

But the media moguls know that the public's taste is not so voracious that it will accept any old stuff. We want the best. Which means that the popular and spectacular will earn far more than the OK and the routine. This has consequences for the players and (in the case of team sports) their clubs.

For participants, professional sport will become increasingly like any other branch of show business. The star players - the ones that people will pay most to see - will exercise substantial power and command astronomical fees. They will come and go according to their pay or their whims. By contrast, like the vast majority of actors, most professional sportsmen and women will endure long periods of immiseration as they jostle for their place in the sun - a place that most of them will never reach.

Likewise, the small clubs with the unfashionable teams - the Chesters and their ilk - will have either to adapt to the changes or go under. The most progressive will eventually abandon all-professional status, at the same time as building new relationships with their communities, attracting folk in for a range of activities - sporting and social. The progressives will not need income from selling players to make up for a total lack of local interest. Others will fail - and despite all the lamentations and cries of "injustice", they will do so because not enough people want them to succeed.

At which point some readers are going to rebel against what they see as a Panglossian complacency. Can it really be true that, in the new world of market sports, all is for the best? And the answer is: definitely not. Although many of these changes are inevitable (and there are more to come, most notably in the cricket world), it is also quite possible for the revolutionaries - through excess of zeal or greed - to make terrible mistakes. Unless they act with some restraint they could kill the goose that, at their promptings, laid the golden egg.

Interest in particular sports, their personalities and dramas, is a complex by-product of history, culture and collective consciousness. Many sports occasions become genuine national events, binding people together, becoming a common currency of discussion and debate, capturing their loyalties and partisanship. So, for instance, "giant-killing" - the victory of the smaller team over the larger - engenders interest rather than dampening it. The possibility that the lowly can triumph is an important part of the legend of many sports. Just as important is the sense of "ownership" of admired players and their deeds.

So what follows from this? First, that too narrow a concentration on the best, though it will reap short-term rewards, may damage the ecology of sport. Second, that if major national or international sporting events - such as the FA Cup Final or Wimbledon - disappear from the BBC and ITV terrestrial channels and the homes of the majority, to turn up only on the screens of subscribers, the sport may make a larger profit that year - but find itself less central, less profitable in years to come.

Finally, the top players themselves will have to be careful about just how mercenary they are prepared to be. Sure, they will be forgiven for being rich, but not for trampling on our dreams. Dreams such as those of the supporters from Chester, following the greatest team the world has ever seen.