Tramore Hinterland – Sport needs to think outside the box

(pdf of article)

This week: the licence fee would pay for more than two years worth of Tramore Hinterland. While you could argue about what represents better value, there’s no doubt which is more virtuous. Except for TG4, that’s worth every cent.

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Alan Davies’ comments criticising Liverpool’s refusal to play their English FA Cup semi-final on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster have faded into history, ancient history in our 24/7 news culture. In case you need reminding, here’s what Davies had to say: “What are you talking about, ‘We won’t play on the day’? Why can’t they? My mum died on 22 August. I don’t stay in all day on 22 August. Do they play on the date of the Heysel Stadium disaster? How many dates do they not play on? Do Man United play on the date of Munich? Do Rangers play on the date when all their fans died in that disaster whatever year that was – 1971?” Strong stuff, and I’ve omitted the swear words. The usual mealy-mouthed apologies have been offered and rejected and the news cycle has moved remorselessly on. Still, the episode is worth revisiting because it tells us about a couple of things over and above the disaster itself.

With respect to Hillsborough, you can read what I thought nearly nine years ago at www.comeonthedeise.ie/?p=283. Bring tissues.

A minor observation to take from Davies’ comments is what a fine actor he is. His turn as Jonathan Creek and on the panel show QI give the impression of a genial, wide-eyed goofball. Yet anyone listening to the offending podcast or reading his column a number of years back in the Times would see an extremely angry man, constantly letting rip at those he doesn’t like, usually for the crime of supporting a different team to himself. Davies would later claim that the storm generated by his comments were “OTT”. Coming from someone who also said in the podcast that the owners of Tottenham Hotspur were “absolute vermin” and “scum of the Earth”, he should certainly recognise OTT when he sees it.

More important is to look at what invoked Davies’ ire. He felt that Liverpool should be obliged to play on Sunday April 15th so Chelsea could play their semi-final against Spurs on Saturday April 14th and give them an extra day’s preparation before playing Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. But why could both matches not have been played on the Saturday, or the Chelsea game played on the Friday as suggested by Roberto di Matteo? The answer, of course, is television. ITV’s Sunday schedule was sinking faster than the Titanic, and there was no way they were going to spurn a slice of drama whose outcome was in doubt – although in truth Chelsea’s win was only marginally more surprising than the ship sinking.

Every sport seems to be utterly in thrall to television to the extent that the likes of Davies and di Matteo don’t question its roll in the scheduling of the match, di Matteo making all his appeals to the FA rather than ITV or ESPN. It’s not just soccer in England. The authorities in Scotland are desperately trashing around trying to come up with some manner of formula that will allow Rangers to remain the top flight despite their years of corrupting the game, all to maintain the television contract. When the ban on English clubs in Europe was lifted in 1990 there was a suggestion that Aston Villa, who finished second in the league, would take the place of Liverpool, still serving a further ban, in the European Cup. “The Champions Cup is only for champions”, sniffed Uefa’s chief executive Lennart Johansson. Fourteen years later, Liverpool would the whole thing despite finishing fourth the previous year. Such high-minded pieties like that of Johansson evaporated in the face of trying to sell the ‘Champions League’ to broadcasters with the potential for matches between Waterford and Glentoran.

Other sports are just as compromised.  The IRFU nearly had a collective heart attack when the government mooted the possibility that the European Rugby Cup might have to be broadcast on terrestrial television, hysterically devoting a section on its website to ‘Saving Irish Rugby’, the implication being that the loss of money would be the death of the sport on the island. One wonders how it survived before the advent of television. Cricket writers love to wax lyrical about the beauty of the Test game which makes the rise of the Indian Premier League, a competition that exists purely for the purposes of television, so distressing to them. The authorities have had to bow to the demands of the IPL to the extent that while the England & Wales Cricket Board – you have to love the ‘& Wales’ part – may want to keep Kevin Pietersen primed for the national team they have to let him go, meekly accepting his preposterous defence that it will improve his Test game when even a cricketing novice like myself can see that’s about as likely a round of crazy golf helping you get around Augusta.

You could go on and on with examples of where television has radically changed the landscape of sport. No doubt the bean counters will say that someone has to pay the players, but this would be to confuse cause with effect. It wasn’t a case of the players were earning a lot of money and a revenue source, any revenue source, had to be tapped. The television money came and the wages of players rose (dis)proportionately as a result. It’s a function of what Alan Sugar called the prune juice effect – the money comes into the sport, then quickly leaves as player’s wages. Presumably some of the gargantuan revenue from professional sport finds its way to the ever-patronised grass roots but this is an after-thought and just as government cutbacks invariably fall on those who can least afford to do without the money, austerity in sport will see the jettisoning of community outreach programmes and whatever bauble those at the top put in place to ease their consciences.

Just once, it would nice if those in the forefront of sport could put integrity ahead of the needs of television. Instead, they’ll continue to bow and scrape even when there’s no obvious benefit to them of doing so, operating on the principle of just-in-case. Alan Davies wouldn’t want to sit down opposite the new producer of QI and find out that he lost his previous job because his television package didn’t sell enough bottles of Budweiser, would he?

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Television isn’t pure evil. When TG4 was established Phoenix magazine had a running joke about how its original name, TnaG, stood for ‘Teilifís na Gaillimhe’, a reflection of the largesse being showered on his adopted county by the man who established the station, our worshipful President Micheal D. Higgins. The people at the Phoenix couldn’t have been watching its sporting output or else they would have called the station TnaPL. Every chance they got, An Rinn-based Nemeton put on Waterford teams. Last weekend they showed the National Football League semi-finals in Croke Park, but they kept us posted of events at the NHL relegation play-off between Dublin and Galway and you wonder whether they would have found an excuse to show that game had Waterford been involved.

Happily we didn’t have to find out, so it was possible to sit back and marvel at what Nemeton have achieved. Whenever RTÉ were asked to broadcast National League games, they would plead poverty. Sending an outside broadcast unit outside of Dublin 4 is an expensive business. Think of the danger money they must have to pay to send their employees beyond the Pale. Nemeton seem to do just as much on a shoestring budget, even covering domestic soccer a few years back before RTÉ got in the act. And before anyone bleats about not being able to understand what is being said, remember this: the choice is not between RTÉ and TG4, it’s between TG4 and nothing. More power to their uillinn.

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