Time for RTE to raise the white flag

 

`Fairyhouse, Gaelic Stadium, Fairyhouse, Newmarket, Fairyhouse, Fairyhouse, plus highlights of an historic Irish sporting achievement that took place some time ago (but we've only just got the pictures) - this week: Ronnie Delany strikes gold in Melbourne; coming soonish: Harrington and McGinley win the World Cup of golf.' Your average Sports Stadium schedule never fails to disappoint. Every Friday night, you turn to page 169 on Aertel in the hope of seeing something other than a Fairyhouse fest, Aussie Rules or highlights of the previous week's Grand Prix listed on the menu for the next day - but horses, Aussie footballers and fast cars are pretty much all you get.

When Fine Gael's spokesman on tourism and sport, Bernard Allen, stood up in the Dail last week and talked of a "pathetic surrender to the greedy empire of Rupert Murdoch and Sky Sports", you'd be forgiven for thinking he was describing Sports Stadium. But no, he was actually speaking about RTE's decision to axe the programme at the end of the year.

Allen was ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle who, perhaps, is also less than excited about a Saturday sporting diet of horses, Aussie footballers and fast cars. Undeterred, Allen has called on the Taoiseach to intervene and reverse RTE's decision to drop the programme which, he claimed, was part of "RTE's New Year resolution" that there be "no sport on Saturday".

"Nonsense," said Joe Mulholland, RTE's managing director of television, when asked to comment on Allen's statement on Wednesday's six o'clock news. "We will have MORE sport on Saturday afternoon, but it will be LIVE sport," he said. "We will have major coverage of international and domestic events, rugby, soccer and the whole range, live, which is what people want to see."

Mulholland admitted that the ratings for Sports Stadium were "extremely low" and when a managing director of a television station admits that (and doesn't claim they're "competitive") you can be guaranteed "low" means they barely register on the ratings' scale.

Allen, then, would seem to be on his own in mourning the loss of Sports Stadium. The programme has gone much the same way as ITV's Dickie Davies-fronted Saturday sports show did all those years ago, when, having lost the rights to show sports that the public actually wanted to see, the channel finally threw in the towel on discovering that Giant Haystacks' and Big Daddy's wrestling exploits weren't enough to attract an audience bigger than Hilda, Gladys and Arnold. BBC's Grandstand is heading that way too. On one Saturday back in September, when ITV was showing live coverage of the qualifying session from the Luxembourg Grand Prix, Grandstand was thrilling us with the Autotrader RAC Touring Car Championship - meanwhile, over on Sky Sports, there was live coverage of the Ryder Cup. Grand- stand will, inevitably, disappear too.

So RTE isn't alone when it comes to a "pathetic surrender" to the Rupert Murdoch empire - but complaining about it seems as useful as moaning about the weather. "We are heading for a scenario where taxpayers are forced to pay through the nose to view our homegrown sporting heroes on foreign channels," Allen claimed. Well, we've already arrived at that `scenario' and short of providing RTE with the funds to challenge Big Rupert, that's the way it's going to stay.

For now, all we can demand of the national station is that they improve on their `lip-service' coverage of domestic sport (particularly soccer - they could start by improving on The Soccer Show by producing a magazine show on the domestic game that doesn't resemble an IDA promotional film) and hope that they can afford to secure the rights to cover as many major international events as possible.

For now, it seems, we will have to be content with highlights of historic Irish sporting achievements at least a week after they happened. "I thought your reception here was quite muted, quite frankly," said Gay Byrne to Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley when the World Cup winners appeared on the Late Late Show on Friday night. Soon after, Byrne announced that there were "highlights of the World Cup on Network Two on Sport Stadium tomorrow afternoon at 5.15." Mmmmm. Maybe the complete lack of television coverage on the national station, bar the odd putt here and there, until a week after the event had something to do with the `muted' reaction to their victory.

Myles Dungan was given the task of commentating (retrospectively) on Sport Stadium's highlights of the World Cup and, given that he (and we) already knew Harrington and McGinley had the won the tournament, he deserves an Oscar for sounding so "delira" and "excira" by their performances.

If RTE are having trouble competing with Murdoch, perhaps they should take a few tips from Eurosport, the channel that has beaten the Aussie mogul hands down in the battle for the rights to Nordic Combined Skiing, snowboarding, sumo wrestling and tractor pulling (okay, Rupert didn't actually bid for any of these `sports'). On Saturday's Eurosport News came the announcement that the channel "just keeps on growing. "Today our new Romanian service got under way, making it the 16th language to be included in this sports party - Eurosport's coverage now extends to more than 75 million homes in 46 countries," said the excited voice . Of course, what this means is that Bjorn Dunkerbeck's days of anonymity when walking the streets of Bucharest are over. Bjorn, as if you needed to be told, is one of Europe's leading INDOOR windsurfers and a regular star of Eurosport's coverage of this remarkable sport.

A hall the size of Tipperary, two million litres of Caribbean coloured water (blue-ish, so forget about draining the Liffey) and 30 55 kilowatt wind machines, that produce force six winds, are required before you can hope to stage one of these events.

If you can get it altogether, you can be sure Eurosport will be there to broadcast it to 46 countries, as they did with their latest indoor windsurfing extravaganza last Friday night. Now if Sports Stadium could get the rights to this sports feast, it might well be saved from the axe - at least it would beat horses, Aussie footballers and fast cars in the entertainment stakes.