DUBLIN, Ireland—Record-breaking baseball star Mark McGwire stands to make a small fortune in sponsorship and corporate deals following the St. Louis Cardinal's 62 (and counting) home runs in one season, but McGwire's earnings will be meager in comparison to what another American now stands to make from sport.
Recently in England, the media baron Rupert Murdoch bought Manchester United Football Club (Man U), which is not only the world's greatest soccer club, it is the world's biggest sports club. Formed in 1878 as a sporting club for railway workers, the club started attracting spectators and turned professional in 1885. Support grew for the club as it progressed up the league tables, entering the first division for the first time in 1935. But it wasn't really until the post- war years, under the management of Sir Matt Busby, that Man U began to break the mold. The club drew a large following among Britain's Irish community for two reasons: there were several Irish players among his young knighted by both the Pope and the Queen, was one of the few public figures in Britain at the time who proudly identified himself as a Catholic.
The team drew fans on the continent when they played in the European Cup and the “Busby babes” look set to dominate British club soccer and European cup competitions for the next decade. But in February 1958, tragedy struck; just after the team secured a place in the semi-finals of the European Cup, the airplane the team were traveling in crashed, killing 23 people, among them eight Man U players. Every sports fan in the world sympathized with the club and willed Man U to success as the team rebuilt itself in the wake of the disaster. But from underdog, Man U have emerged to become soccer's top dogs. The team is now the world's biggest earning sports club. Their official club magazine is sold in more than 30 countries and is translated into 13 languages. In the United States, Man U's merchandising and replica kits outsell all other clubs. In Ireland, a third of sports fans say they support Man U and in Scandinavia the supporters club has 25,000 members.
Now that money making machine is set to become the property of Murdoch, who made a £645 million ($1032 million) bid for control of the team in early September. Fans are aghast, fearing at the very least that Murdoch will make television coverage of their matches available only to pay-per-view customers.
Fans are aghast, fearing at the very least that Murdoch will make television coverage of their matches available only to pay-per-view customers.
Increasingly, on both sides of the Atlantic, Murdoch has a say in how fans get access to television sport. In the United States, the Fox television network owns regional TV rights for 17 NBA teams, 12 Ice hockey teams, 22 baseball teams and 20 college leagues. This was boosted in January when Murdoch paid $4.5 billion for exclusive TV rights to NFL football for the next five years.
How Murdoch's ownership of these television rights in the United States will affect American fans remains to be seen, but in Britain his satellite television company BSkyB has already affected the soccer calendar. Traditionally, Scottish and English league weekend matches all kicked-off at the same time, Saturday 3pm, and mid-week matches were played on either Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. Now on Saturdays, big league matches are staggered to take place throughout the day and early evening, providing one game after another for the television sports fans, who now also get a big match every day of the week, including Good Friday. BSkyB's dominant control of sports coverage on television in Britain is completed by Murdoch's ownership of the television rights on rugby and cricket.
Now, Murdoch is adopting a new strategy. Not content with owning the television rights of fixtures, he is now purchasing sports clubs. This year he bought the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team for $311 million and he is part of the consortium that owns the LA Lakers basketball team and ice hockey's LA Kings.
The sports clubs aren't his only acquisition in Los Angeles this year: in January he was made a knight of the Order of St. Gregory. The papal honor was granted at the request of Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan in recognition of Murdoch's support for Catholic education in the archdiocese.
There was some astonishment in Britain that Murdoch, a non-Catholic, received the award. In the United Kingdom and Ireland he is regarded with suspicion by many. His ownership of The Sun, Britain' biggest selling tabloid newspaper, and The Times, a broadsheet that is still the newspaper of the establishment, makes him a powerful man. His newspapers' support for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party were crucial to their election victories. As Thatcher's government kept power for its third term, The Sun's front-page boasted: “It was The Sun what won it.”
It's the partisan nature of Murdoch newspapers and television news that has worried most journalists
This mixture of partisan politics and sensational news reporting is the blueprint used at all newspapers that come under the control of the Murdoch empire. The New York Post (no longer owned by Murdoch), the Chicago Sun-Times and the Boston Herald were all accused of sensationalism after being purchased by Murdoch's multinational News International.
But sensationalism aside, its the partisan nature of Murdoch newspapers and television news rooms that has worried most journalists: for example, his Star satellite does not carry the BBC's World Service television for fear that its coverage of Chinese affairs might offend the Beijing government; for similar reasons a Murdoch-owned publishing house refused to print the memoirs of the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton, who is a Catholic, for fear they would offend Chinese authorities. On a more mundane level, the immediate fear for sports fans is that they will no longer be able to gain access to sporting events controlled by Murdoch.
Commenting on his bid for Man U, Msgr. Eugene Dolan, a life-long fan, said: “This purchase is all a lever towards introducing pay-per-view. It's a natural progression and I am not surprised by it. It's a myth that United is a Catholic club, it has lost its soul.
“Now you are not a fan, you are a consumer of units. Fans like me who live in Manchester and have season tickets are not as important as the fan from Sweden, Ireland, or the United States who might only visit once a year or once every five years, but who will spend a fortune in Man U's super-store when they reach the ground.” Father John Ahern, parish priest of Gorton, an inner-city working class parish, said he feared that as Man U put a greater emphasis on generating revenue, fans in his neighborhood will no longer be able to attend Man U's games. “If you can't afford a ticket, there are plenty of others who can,” he said. “United (Man U) are now the same as any other multinational — it's profit before people.”
However, Father Arthur Keegan of St. Anne's, Stretford (the church closest to Man U's home ground), said he believed the Murdoch bid was a good thing “It will pay for better facilities and better players, that has got to be a good thing,” he said. “This purchase will help build a new stand increasing the ground's capacity from 56,000 — that means more people can see United (Man U) play at home.”
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin.