‘Sports fans are losing out with the move towards exclusive pay TV rights’

Sep 17, 2019
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Are great sporting moments, like those of the 1991 Rugby World Cup, being stripped from fans because of pay TV agreements? Source: Getty Images

Link is a very old mate of mine; we go back to our teens. In fact, he used to sit alongside me in our roll class in fourth and fifth-year high school. He is the kind of guy you could always rely on for the snappy one-liner and the devastating nickname attached to some unfortunate, undeserving teachers during those semi-delinquent years.

When I received an email from Link that he had been day-dreaming in his headphones and would send me a compilation of his favourite tunes, my antennae began to twitch. In due course, a CD did arrive, labelled ‘Some Old, Some Not So Old’, but without a playlist that might hint at what was coming. Suspecting an earful of Tom Lehrer, Kevin Bloody Wilson or much much worse, I waited weeks until the rest of the household were 120 kliks away upcountry, before I summoned the nerve to see what cuckoo I had allowed into my nest.

Well, Link was quite right. There were some real old ones — Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Richie Valens, the Ventures, the voices of our immaturity you might say. And there were those which were not so old — such as ELO, Toto, and the Traveling Wilburys. But I’d be inclined to call them the voices of our tissue-thin maturity.

I sat there in our sun-drenched living room (we’re still in drought, by the way) soaking this stuff up in a great bath of tepid sentiment, when I was suddenly, quite unexpectedly, transfixed. Totally out of context came blaring the rugby anthem, ‘A Number on My Back’, John Williamson’s 1999 classic written in the afterglow of the Wallabies’ World Cup triumph of that year.

I sat there, pressing the little button over and over as I fixed on this little gem that swept me back to the days when I wore a number on my own back and ran like a maniac over all those veritable Twickenhams of Sydney’s Lower North Shore — Chatswood Oval, North Sydney Oval, Tantallon Oval, Manly Oval, Beauchamp Park, Tryon Road.

Awash with the sentimental need for human contact, I immediately punched in Link’s number on the mobile. “Roon …” (he’s the only one who still remembers my old nickname from school, which I, too, had forgotten, but I cut him off with a sharp, “Listen to this …”, whereupon the anthem reached a crescendo: “Could it be a dream, My father’s son that’s me …” And Link’s comment? “Not bad, eh?” And those few words seemed to be enough.

Despite having been an avid rugby player in my adolescence I had lost faith in the Wallabies, probably some time after they defeated the British and Irish Lions for the only time ever in 2001. I don’t know what impelled this loss of attachment; it couldn’t entirely be a distaste for the rampant commercialisation of an Australian sporting icon, because my irritation with a similar binge after the 1991 World Cup win had prompted a scoffing spoof which, fortunately, my editors had the good sense to pulp before it was let loose on an innocent readership.

What I do remember was that I was disgusted at the xenophobic campaign waged against the Poms at the 2003 World Cup, although they were clearly the best team in the world that year, and so I was quietly pleased when England eventually came out on top of us in a hard-fought contest in Sydney.

Nevertheless, Link’s CD and John Williamson’s voice stirred embers of the old loyalties and I found myself diving into the world wide web to find out how I could view the series with something like the religious fervour possessing me in 1991 after decades of national humiliation. Australia 32, Argentina 19. Australia 9, Western Samoa 3 (in a swamp at Pontypool). Australia 38, Wales 3. Australia 19, Ireland 18 (skin-of-our-teeth job). Australia 16, New Zealand 6 (how sweet was that). And then the final, Australia 12, England 6 (the difference being Tony Daly’s grafted try, itself a signifier of our coming of age among the power houses of world rugby). I remember them all, as though it was yesterday.

But, was I reading the web right? That all those World Cup games, including the final, were going to be on pay TV or some variant of the subscription culture, despite fewer than 30 per cent of Australian homes having access to cable? Had the World Rugby Cup gone the same way as world title fights, Wimbledon and US Open tennis, the English Premier League soccer, the FA Cup and the Scottish FA Cup and all the other major sporting events that used to light up our lives and set off excited chatter among neighbours who barely knew each other … All those events that we were promised, hand on heart, in 1992 we would continue to see, free-to-air, when the Federal government decided to allow cable television a foothold in the lucrative Australian market. I could hardly believe it: Had the World Rugby Cup been consumed by the voracious god Mammon, too?

The auguries were not good. The inquiry by Cricket Australia into the ball-tampering affair lopped a few heads, notable players and shadowy bureaucrats among them, but it seemed to skirt delicately around the relationship between the sport and its sponsors. While I note the constant iteration of sporting sponsorship — “Proudly supported by Company X”, I have never, ever seen the corollary, “whether they win, lose or draw”.

But my fears were allayed. The World Rugby Cup, or at least those few games played by the Wallabies, plus the finals series, will be on free-to-air. For now. Because here’s the rub: If the viewing public soars as the Wallabies’ fortunes unexpectedly soar, how unlikely would it be for a telecom company executive to murmur to the senior pollie sitting next to him in the corporate box, glass in one hand, canapé in the other, “Y’know, mate, I think we could do a damn good job of promoting the game, and the country, if only the 2023 World Cup …?”

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