That great grudge match: TV vs Sport

Camera and satellite are perverting our venerable games, goes the cry. But for the fans, life is improved
As if deliberately to test the moral consistency of men, the weekend when true sporting fans were to be heard bemoaning the power of television - following the takeover of Rugby League by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation - was also the very weekend when true sporting fans were to be found beached helplessly in front of the set.

In the space of 48 hours, the cameras delivered the Grand National (BBC1), the FA Cup semi-finals Everton vs Spurs (BBC1) and Man Utd vs Crystal Palace (Sky), the US Masters golf from Augusta (BBC2), snooker's British Open (Sky) and cricket's Australia vs West Indies (Sky). Rarely has there been a more opportune time for a replay of that great old grudge-match: Television vs Sport. Should we be cheering or jeering?

The initial impact of television on sport was simply to democratise the top events. Those unlikely ever to obtain a ticket for an FA Cup Final, Wimbledon or a Test Match will find it hard to be persuaded that television is any kind of villain. And, given that British sports broadcasting was pioneered by the non-commercial BBC, the argument that the medium was simply providing a huge new extra layer of seats is sustainable, at least for the early years and, even today, on the sell-out, famous occasions.

Any boy who grew up in the Seventies, though, remembers the fear of television that was palpable in football. The games to be televised on that week's BBC Match of the Day were a secret until Saturday at 4.40, when the commentator filed a final-whistle report on Grandstand. Rumours that the BBC vans had been seen outside the ground in midweek would, though, whip around a town (Leeds, in my case) and you knew that the treat of seeing your own team was in prospect.

The reason for the secrecy was fear by the soccer authorities that supporters would choose the sofa over the terraces. The terror of the chairmen has been vindicated statistically: 35 per cent fewer people watched live matches in the mid-Nineties than in the mid-Forties, despite many more games being played. In the lower, unglamorous divisions, turnstile attendances have halved. This looks like a perfect parable of what television does to sport - ripping off the blooms, killing the roots. Examination of the figures, however, reveals that in the first years of the Nineties, when the television schedules were becoming ever more saturated with matches, the numbers of those turning up to drink Bovril in person actually rose. It seems likely that factors other than television - principally, perhaps, football hooliganism - had been keeping fans away in the Eighties.

Of course, in the extreme baggy-shorted fantasy of how sport was better in the past, television gets blamed for encouraging the hooliganism as well. That particular allegation fails - Millwall supporters, for example, were notorious and TV never went near their team - but it is uncomfortably clear that television has in other ways changed the nature of soccer. The Premier League, for example, was essentially an attempt by the top clubs to maximise their television (and, by extension, sponsorship) earnings.

And the problems that have afflicted the game this season are partly a product of its higher media profile. Players taking bribes (if they have), drugs (which they have) and flying kicks at spectators (ditto) are clearly part of an industrialised soccer economy, with escalating possibilities of money and fame, in which television coverage has been a major player.

Indeed, you assume that one of the potential hidden benefits of this weekend's deal for Mr Murdoch is that Rugby League players may now become famous enough to have their private lives turned over on the front pages of his tabloids.

No one can deny television's influence on modern sport. It has changed the nature of spectating. For all the excitement of actually being at Wembley or Lords or Twickenham, you find you want an action replay when something happens. American and Australian stadiums have bowed to this evolutionary change with giant television screens. Cameras have also significantly altered the nature of playing and officiating at the top level. The "ball- tampering" row that nearly lost Mike Atherton his job as England cricket captain last year was created by a television close-up. The world thinks that Mr Hart of Darlington gave Spurs a soft penalty on Sunday, because of the television replays. We know, too, that the status of tennis and basketball as Olympic sports is due to the power of the American networks.

It is also clear that the might of the medium is increasing. The prototype for Murdoch's tackle on Rugby League was his compatriot Kerry Packer's construction of the cricket World Series, exclusive to his Channel 9, in 1977. Yet Packer was able only to establish a rival, pariah tour - a sort of sporting closed-circuit television - which was eventually significant mainly as a catalyst on the structure and salaries of the international game proper. By contrast, Rupert Murdoch has effectively been able to swallow the entire British Rugby League game.

Packer, although an Australian, was the man who spread American concepts of marketing, sponsorship and broadcasting beyond American sport. Yet Packer was at least operating within the realm of generally available commercial terrestrial television. The terrible new factor in the relationship between the medium and sport is satellite blackmail.

Over the past few years, those interested in seeing live Premiership and international football have been forced to subscribe, at a level of expense unprecedented in British television, to Murdoch's network. This was simple hostage tactics, with the result that, in a rare example of a platitude returning to fact, football became a political football. Subsequently, followers of England cricket tours had the chequebook put to their heads; fans of Rugby League and (in a separate deal) boxing now suffer the same unsporting behaviour.

In these deals, sport is merely a pawn in a wider broadcasting war between the BBC and deregulated or unregulated networks. With pay-per-view technology advancing, armchair spectators will eventually be required to pay a separate entrance fee to each event. In this sense, the real crisis is not the effect of television on sport, but of sport on television.

With regard to the more common complaint - the effect of television on sport - it would be hypocritical of me to sympathise with the baggy-shorts tendency. It is true that in 30 years sportsmen have gone from being on television to being in television. Yet this seems to me a matter for cultural observation rather than lament. Drug companies make a lot of money out of antibiotics, which in turn have probably taken much of the fun out of diagnostic medicine; but such pills keep a lot of people alive. Similarly, for all the talk of the romance of the terraces, I'd much rather have seen both FA Cup matches live at home on Sunday afternoon than either separately in the flesh. I just wish that watching one of them hadn't resulted in another viewer for the predatory Sky Sports.