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Sell-off that is now a sell-out

Sport is paying the price for allowing money men to move the goalposts

Neil Wilson, Daily Mail
Wednesday 18th November

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 prime-time schedule.

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 now.

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.


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