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TV dollars threaten English town's favorite sport

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FEATHERSTONE, England -- There is a place, 180 miles north of London, where the coal pit closed 10 years ago and almost all hope vanished, but a professional rugby team by the name of the Featherstone Rovers endured.

The Rovers survived lousy seasons and tough economic times in a jewel of a stadium where one-third of the town would huddle together in the cold and rain to watch a rough, muddy sport that mirrored the lives of nearly all who cheered.

But earlier this month, media magnate Rupert Murdoch's television executives for BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting) made British rugby an offer: Here's a pile of money and go form a Super League -- a league without room for the Featherstone Rovers.

They were told to either merge with their two archrivals or die a slow death in a minor league.

And now there is a great uproar in Featherstone and the eight other towns in the north of England where teams are being shoved aside or forced to merge in the rush for television dollars. It's like the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn or the Colts fleeing Baltimore under cover of darkness.

"A media tycoon with no sense of community is going against the authentic voice of the people," says Ian Clayton, a local writer who has organized a campaign to save the Rovers.

"They've robbed us of our jobs. They've robbed us of our infrastructure. And now they're coming after our leisure."

The last thing people in Featherstone and the rest of north England ever expected was that their favorite sport of rugby would be shaken by global economic forces.

But it has happened.

Mr. Murdoch is out to seize control of professional rugby worldwide at a cost of $500 million over five years. He has already started a new league in Australia. Now he's turning his sights on Britain -- the better to feed his pay-TV networks with programming.

Organizers of a 14-team Super League that is bankrolled by Mr. Murdoch's BSkyB pay-TV network are turning the game upside-down. A sport played in the British winter and spring will now be moved to the summer. New teams will be created from old ones.

Featherstone is being asked to swallow the bitterest pill of all -- merge with Wakefield and Castleford, move to an out-of-town stadium, and take the name of a polluted river, Calder.

"The Featherstone Rovers are what we are and who we are," says Tony Lumb, a retired electrician and local historian. "We don't want to be forced together to join a team that doesn't exist."

To understand the lure of rugby and the passions it can unleash, venture to Featherstone, population 11,000, where the fish-and-chip shops outnumber the traffic lights four to two. Here, rugby fills a need, much like Friday night football in the old steel towns of Western Pennsylvania.

It used to be that the coal miners would come up from their Saturday shifts and put on cleats, shorts and a shirt, to bleed and win for their town.

The game has been in Featherstone since the first Rovers' club was founded in 1902. Even though the game is now almost fully professional, the spirit remains the same. Players, many of whom work by day, sweat at night on a field so dimly lighted it appears that a fog is rolling in.

"To these people, rugby means everything," says Richard Gunn, who, like his father before him, plays for Featherstone.

A rugby game is no longer an event -- it's simply the only thing left in a town that lost its last operating coal mine in 1985 after a bitter yearlong strike.

It was the miners who turned a medieval manor village into a 19th-century boom town, thereby helping to fuel the Industrial Revolution and supply the royal family with coal.

But the miners couldn't beat history. The union was broken. And the pits were closed.

Once again, the citizens of Featherstone may be fighting history. They are also meeting a familiar foe, Mr. Murdoch, whose Sydney-based News Corp. is one of the world's largest newspaper publisher. During the miners' strike, Mr. Murdoch's British papers lent editorial support to the Conservative government, the enemy of the miners. Passions run so high that many in the town have simply refused to read any of Mr. Murdoch's papers for the past decade.

"Someone like Murdoch supported Margaret Thatcher, who shut the pits down," says Tony Appleyard, a Featherstone fan who can watch the games from his bedroom window, which overlooks the field. "I bet you that if you went up to Rupert Murdoch he wouldn't know where Featherstone was. He's only interested in money."

Steve Wagner, the unpaid chairman of the Rovers, wouldn't mind getting his team some of the money that Mr. Murdoch is offering -- $1.8 million a franchise per year for five years. The Rovers, Mr. Wagner says, are $500,000 in debt. He voted for the merger earlier this month, since he was given two hours to consider the offer.

Now, he's not exactly the most popular man in town.

"This is too much responsibility for one man to have," Mr. Wagner says. "You get stress from 7 in the morning until midnight. You get terrible letters and phone calls. My wife has been threatened. My kids have been threatened."

The team's fate is to be decided by a vote of its 1,147 season ticket holders, who are technically members of the club. They can vote for the merger or vote to accept a one-time $160,000 payoff to move down to a new division, which by U.S. standards would be classified as minor league. The voting has been going on for the past week, and the results are expected to be known today or tomorrow.

"It's no choice at all," says Mr. Clayton, leader of the fan revolt.

One night last week, 100 fans gathered at the Railway Hotel pub in downtown Featherstone to vent their anger at Mr. Murdoch. The setting was appropriate. It was at the Railway, in the first-floor bar, where the Rovers' team was founded.

A book titled "Merging on the Ridiculous" was distributed. In it, fans from the north vented their love and their rage. They sounded like U.S. baseball fans, writing of their passion for the game, of memories of attending matches with their fathers, and of ultimate betrayal by corporate interests. Many of those same fans went to the old stadium Sunday along Post Road to cheer the Rovers one more time in a season-ending game.

Says Mr. Clayton: "If we lose this team, the town loses its heart."

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