IF TOP-LEVEL football is one big soap opera there is little wonder that other sports struggle to compete for attention. While viewers are finally switching off from the nastiness of EastEnders, other soaps continue to encourage the proliferation of young couch potatoes.

So it is hugely encouraging that there are people from a large variety of sports prepared to try to break the stranglehold of the soap opera mentality. The latest example to come to my attention is that Newcastle Eagles' community programme delivers basketball to 10,000 school children a year.

They will now be greatly helped by the Eagles' comprehensive victory in last weekend's BBL Cup final, in which they won 85-60 away to Brighton Bears, who registered the third lowest score in the final in the event's 17-year history.

Basketball has always struck me as one of those sports in which teenagers have a five-minute interest. They ask for a basket for one of their Christmas presents, dad takes the trouble to attach it to the side of the house or shed, and by Boxing Day it has fallen into disuse.

That's because children need to be encouraged to embrace the team ethic rather than messing about by themselves, and they also need heroes to emulate. No matter if those heroes have names like Fabulous Flourney and T J Walker - it's far healthier than worshipping Dirty Den.

Flourney is the Eagles' player-coach and Walker, from New York, has been with the team for five years. But despite the inevitable American influence, the club's managing director Paul Blake is determined to go on developing homegrown talent.

Blake rescued the Eagles from the ashes of Sir John Hall's Newcastle Sporting Club, in which the rugby-playing Falcons were also threatened with cremation. They too have profited from a very active community programme, and while it cannot be easy for a variety of sports competing for attention with each other as well as football, any success they have in enticing youngsters away from screens and into team games is to be applauded.

AND what about tennis? Will youngsters suddenly be encouraged to pick up a racket on the back of the Davis Cup win over Israel? Probably not, but the glorious doubles triumph involving 17-year-old Andrew Murray and the little-known Dave Sherwood does provide reassurance that there is life after Henman.

It was doubly welcome after the insipid performance of the man who stepped into Henman's singles slot, Alex Bogdanovich, who will soon be succeeded by Murray if the young Scot fulfils expectations. Apparently he arrived on court listening to a track called 500 Miles by an Edinburgh group, The Proclaimers, on his walkman, later explaining that it is played every time Hibs score a goal.

Murray is a big Hibs supporter, which is no bad thing if it proves to other youngsters that you can be a football fan and still achieve something special in another sport.

EFFORTS in recent years to interest a wider range of children in cricket are not yet feeding through into the first-class game, judging by a survey which shows more than a third of county cricketers are from independent schools.

The counties have been rightly criticised for signing boatloads of overseas players, whose salaries could be better spent on the grass roots, which receives £8.6m of the ECB's £81m budget. The latest shocking example is Yorkshire signing an unknown South African bowler named Deon Kuis.

It's not many years ago that Yorkshire players had to be born within the county boundaries, a policy which was abandoned in order to sign left-arm spinner Richard Stemp, whose place in history was barely justified by his limited impact.

Generations of Yorkshire boys have been inspired to take up the game by the likes of fast-bowling characters like Freddie Trueman and Darren Gough. I can't imagine them running in to bowl proclaiming: "Ey up, I'm Deon Kuis."

THE other St James's Park, home of Exeter FC, now has to be content with staging Conference football, but if the local rugby club have their way it will also become a Zurich Premiership venue.

Except that, as they did with Rotherham, rugby's power-brokers are likely to find this ground-sharing scheme unsatisfactory in order to avoid relegating one of the elite. Despite reaching the Powergen Cup final last Sunday, Leeds are bottom of the Premiership and face a tough run-in. But as they have invested heavily in developing what is seen as a centre of excellence in Yorkshire they are likely to be protected.

It's supposed to be one up, one down, but Exeter lead division one and their own ground is not up to Premiership standards, hence the proposal to use St James's Park. We can expect some serious rumblings before this is resolved.

THERE will also be more rumblings at a football club surprisingly in sight of the promised land - Wigan. Chairman Dave Whelan's protest about the price of policing is a sad reminder that if fans behaved such crippling costs would not be necessary.

Published: 11/03/2005