What about the fans? Patrick Fleming muses on where our priorities should lie on the Stade de France fiasco
Saturday evening at a packed Stade de France and there are only moments to go until kick off. The crowd waits in anticipation as the players begin lining up in the tunnel. Meanwhile, in a corner of the pitch, a group of men are staring at the ground. Some of them are poking at the turf with pitch forks while others try to see if they can get a good divot in. It’s no use; the pitch is frozen. It was fine an hour ago when they decided to push ahead with optimism and with the knowledge that a cancellation would suit nobody at that late stage. But as cold evening became frigid night they had no choice. It was frozen, it was dangerous and they had to call it off.
With no tries to deconstruct, lineout statistics to interpret or a man of the match to interview, the focus naturally came down to that moment and that decision. They even had the action replay to analyse, that’s if you can call a bunch of people looking at grass “action”. Nonetheless the initial reaction was one of disappointment, mostly at the last minute nature of the decision. How could they leave the fans stranded like this? Indeed it was all about the fans and how they must be outraged. Well of course, but they would have been outraged had it been called off an hour earlier too. In fact, they would have been outraged if it had been called when the initial forecasts of freezing conditions had been made during the week. They would have been outraged if the “Escargot King” fast food stand in the stadium had run out of battered horse meat nuggets and curly pommes frites.
So let us forget about the assembled spectators. They are a bad focus for investigation because they have a vested interest and as usual, they have the worst view of events. In fact, let’s forget about anything but the basic objective of playing a game of rugby.
In that sense, there was absolutely no reason why a rugby match could not have been played in Paris on Saturday. From early on during the week, it had been forecast that the weather would be cold. Not just cold, but below freezing. It was also known that the Stade de France pitch was ill equipped to operate under frozen conditions. Also, assuming the organisers had a basic knowledge of how weather works (namely that night tends to be colder than day), they could well have reasoned that an earlier kick off time would have yielded more favourable conditions. These are the facts of the matter and from this there was one option, which at the very least, would have drastically improved the chances of playing the game: reschedule it for an earlier kick off.
But playing a game of rugby was not the sole factor in deciding how to deal with the situation. Media and advertising interests had already banked on the more marketable nine o’clock Paris-time start. A change of time would have moved the programming from its coveted primetime slot and all the premium ad space that comes with it. The media tail is wagging the sporting dog, a trend which has grown radically since the Rupert Murdoch cash cow that is the Premiership first began distinguishing football fans by what premium satellite TV channels they subscribed to back in 1992.
The benefits of the TV age on the major sports in Britain and Ireland are debatable and it would certainly be ridiculous to ignore that at the very least. The new sporting media has created a monumental spectacle of sports in modern times. But it’s events like those in Paris which should make people question at what point does the game, the pure sport, become secondary to the media circus?