When British television first took its cameras into Wimbledon in
1937, the All England Club declined to take a fee. It was, its august
board decreed, its contribution to science and the general interest.
How times have changed. Sport no longer gives to the science of
television but receives in measures so generous that its global income
dwarfs that of many countries.
Some say that it amounts annually to £6.6billion. For which it
pays a price.
Boxer Ensley Bingham paid that price when he lost his world title
to save Sky Sports from cancelling a world championship fight it had
scheduled, but in sport's global debit column it amounted to little
more than small change.
At a time just after the last world war when the BBC contributed
just five guineas to Football Association funds for the right to
screen the FA Cup Final, it put its cameras where it was told and said
a humble 'thank you'.
Television now pipes sport into the world's living rooms and calls
the tune. It dictates not only its venues, its calendar and its
timetables, but who plays, what they wear and which ball they use.
Long gone are the days when spectators mattered. Today they are
only the ambience of televised sport, the paying extras in studios
once called stadia.
Modern sport is a five-ring commercial circus. Television is both
its paymaster and ringmaster. In 1958 the Football League refused an
offer from ITV to screen its matches because it feared the
consequences. Now the world of sport accepts the consequences and
takes the money.
Who fights for what world boxing championship, when and where, is
dictated more by cable operator HBO than any ranking list.
But if you dismiss boxing as just business by another name, how
about football, the world's most popular sport?
The national game wrote off a century of tradition when it
abandoned Saturdays for Sundays and Mondays to accommodate Sky. Then,
having taken the first step, it took another by allowing Sky to
dictate the times it kicked off and extended half time to 15 minutes
to offer more time for commercials.
Not that football's compliance with its television masters compares
with rugby league's abject surrender. It changed not only its day and
its times, but its season!
It is not only in Britain that football has thrown over its
traditions for the sake of television's money. UEFA, the European
game's governing body, dumped its traditional knockout system for the
European Cup - and changed its name to the Champions League because
companies such as ITV did not want their champions knocked out.
Since gridiron's National Football League introduced TV time-outs
in 1955, nothing has been sacred, no sport safe.
Baseball even changed its rules to lower pitchers' mounds and
reduce the strike zone because television companies were fed up with
so few home runs.
Across The Pond, television viewers have long been accustomed to
hearing referees and umpires explaining decisions. Now in Britain we
have referees wired for sound in Five Nations rugby and umpires
speaking into microphones at Wimbledon.
Tennis was quick to roll over and allow television to tickle its
tummy. It introduced tiebreaks because television objected to the
unpredictable length of games, while Greg Rusedski plays with yellow
balls today because TV viewers found white hard to see.
Golf changed its order of draw to send the leaders out last because
that is how the broadcasters wanted it and then scrapped most of its
match-play events because television could not afford to have games
which might finish at the 13th hole.
Some view these changes as fine-tuning which has improved sport as
a spectacle. But try persuading cricket's traditionalists that the
one-day game is the real thing or that players in coloured pyjamas
under floodlights are playing the same game.
Even the Olympic Games, which stood so long for the values of
amateurism, conceded its integrity long ago. In 1988 it made athletes
compete at 8am to accommodate U.S. network ABC's Eastern Seaboard
ABC paid athletics' governing body £13.2m to persuade it to change
its schedule and even attempted to get the South Korean government to
move their clocks forward one hour to minimise the time difference.
Holding athletes and swimmers on their blocks while television
comes out of a commercial break has been standard practice for years
Television and sport has a mutually beneficial relationship which
gives enormous pleasure to millions who cannot attend the events. But
when one side takes advantage it is too late to recognise the
difference between selling and selling-out.