Reading the Irish press in recent weeks, it would seem feasible that the three main issues affecting the country are the introduction of water charges, Garth Crooks’ controversial Croke Park concerts and the decision by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to sell some of its TV rights to Sky Sports.
The GAA’s new broadcast deal will see state broadcaster RTE show 31 matches and Sky 20 matches – 14 of which will be exclusively live. This marks the first time All-Ireland matches have not been free-to-air in Ireland, with RTE showing matches since 1962 and commercial station TV3 broadcasting games between 2008 and 2013.
So what? Sports organisations have been getting into bed with pay-tv for some time, why is this any different? Well, unlike football or rugby union, Gaelic Games are amateur at the highest level, with the GAA’s remit being to promote the games as part of a wider movement to promote Irish culture and the Irish language.
By partnering with Sky, many feel the GAA has prioritised commercial gain ahead of its principles, which would dictate hurling and Gaelic football are available to as wide a domestic audience as possible.
The GAA has defended the deal by claiming it wanted to ensure games were available to viewers in Britain, a mission that was incompatible with maintaining free-to-air coverage in Ireland. It says Sky was the only UK broadcaster to express an interest, with ITV and Channel 4 turning down the GAA’s advances, and BBC only interested in broadcasting Ulster matches.
“It is simply not possible for the GAA to ensure free-to-air coverage at home while at the same time making its games accessible to Irish people abroad,” GAA director general Páraic Duffy told The Irish Times, adding that he believed the organisation had got the balance right as only two major matches would be exclusive to Sky.
Alongside the new television deal, the GAA also unveiled GAA Go, a new worldwide service that broadcasts all televised GAA games around the world (except the Sky games in the UK) over the Internet.
Duffy said the huge start-up costs associated with the service meant it would not be a particularly profitably venture for the GAA, no doubt in an attempt to prove the exercise showed there was little financial inventive associated with its desire to make matches available to foreign audiences.
The organisation also insists that all money generated by the deal, believed to be around €2 million, will be reinvested into GAA clubs across the country. However it is reported that TV3 offered the same amount and that if Sky was offering more money, it was only marginal.
Irish politicians have been incredibly critical of the move, arguing that many GAA volunteers would not be able to afford to view live matches of the organisation they serve and have asked why did the GAA simply not allow RTE to offer matches free-to-air over the Internet? After all, if the Irish diaspora are capable of viewing GAA Go on a computer, surely they would be able to find RTE.ie?
The GAA’s remit is not necessarily to introduce the sports to a foreign audience and given that the majority of televised games have been shown on Premier Sports (founded by the owner of Setanta Sports) in the UK, it’s difficult to see how awarding games to Sky will help – especially now that Premier Sports is available on Virgin Media. If anyone was fussed about GAA they would already have found a way to watch it.
A Sky Sports subscription costs in excess of £30 a month with a 12 month contract whereas Premier Sports costs £9.99 a month without a minimum of two months. Of course more pubs in the UK have Sky, but you can’t be guaranteed the GAA will be shown on the big screen. You’ll have a better chance at an Irish pub, but they’ll probably already have Premier Sports or GAA Go. For the record, you can even go to O’Neills on Carnaby Street on a Sunday and watch the GAA live.
If this the case, why not simply award all matches to Premier Sports or ensure all matches were available on GAA Go? If the online service is good enough for the rest of the world, then it’s surely good enough for the UK. Expats are familiar with the ritual of hooking up laptops to TV screens to view streams of varying degrees of legality, while the NHL, NFL, MLB and NFL in the US have offered similar services to their fans for a number of years.
This would appear to be the way to go for all sports bodies keen to offer their services to foreign fans – especially in places where television deals are not possible. The ECB has experimented with streaming England test matches on YouTube to countries in Europe where cricket isn’t popular (all of them expect those on the British Isles and arguably the Netherlands).
Sky Sports coverage
Following the outrage that has greeted the new arrangement, the Irish government has pledged to review the list of sporting events “designated as events of major importance to society for which the right of a qualifying broadcaster (RTE, TV3, & TG4 i.e. free television service with greater than 90 percent coverage) to provide coverage on a live or deferred basis on television services should be permitted in the public interest.”
Interestingly, the summer Olympics and the Irish national football team’s competitive matches are on the list, but the GAA is not – possibly because no one ever thought it would take its matches away from free TV.
It was in this climate that Sky’s first GAA broadcast, the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship quarter-finalbetween red-hot favourites Kilkenny and Offaly on 7 June, took place. The event was highly anticipated, with countless newspaper columns devoted to speculation and reports on who the presenters would be and what features would be introduced.
On the night, the home team duly thrashed Offaly, preventing any kind of a contest, but Sky’s approach was widely praised by commentators, with many who were desperate to see the broadcaster fail disappointed by the high quality presentation.
However, according to the Irish Independent, just 32,000 people in Ireland tuned into Sky’s first game, compared to the 402,000 who watched the Dublin v Laois encounter on RTE the following day, and audiences have been falling ever since – indicating a degree of apathy among Irish viewers.
Even more damning is that figures in the UK are even worse. Indeed, The Irish Times reports that just 9,000 viewers in Britain watched Galway v Sligo in the Connacht Senior Football Championship semi-final on 21 June, with an average viewership of just 18,000.
The report also suggests that this is the same number of viewers that tuned in to Premier Sports for Cork v Clare in the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final the week before, seriously undermining the GAA’s argument that the Sky deal will make matches more easily available to non-Irish viewers.
Although it will be concerned by the low audiences, Sky Sports’ motivation for the deal is clear. Having ceded a number of rights to BT Sport, such as some Champions League football, some Premier League matches and Premiership Rugby, the addition of GAA, Pro 12 Rugby and European Rugby Champions Cup matches featuring Irish teams, it is far more appealing to Irish sports fans long accustomed to seeing their favourite sports on Free-to-air (FTA) television.
The GAA’s motives are less obvious unless they are not solely financial. Indeed, its commercial operations throughout its history have been well documented and are far more extensive than what you might expect from an amateur organisation.
Concubhar Ó Liatháin, board member of Irish language channel TG4, notes the GAA’s broadcast arrangements contradict its stated aims of promoting Irish. TG4, which shows the National Hurling League and National Football League competitions in the winter months, is unable to provide coverage of the All-Ireland championships in the summer.
The GAA’s standard response is that there has been live Irish language radio commentary on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta since 1972, but Ó Liatháin told The Irish Times in 2008, six years before the Sky deal was agreed, that the lack of TV coverage can be attributed to “the failure of the cash-hungry GAA to see beyond the big-money deals offered by the likes of RTE, TV3 and Setanta. TG4 cannot hope to compete with any of these broadcasters in terms of acquisition budgets or audience share.”
He adds that it’s ironic that foreign events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France can be shown in Irish on TG4, but All-Ireland championship hurling and football cannot, especially when the GAA could do so cheaply.
Betrayal of principles?
Wimbledon is one of the UK government’s list of protected sporting events that must be shown on free-to-air television, as are both the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship – much to the dismay of both FIFA and UEFA, who want their events removed so they can maximise broadcast revenues.
But given that FIFA (and UEFA is no pauper either) has extensive cash reserves and makes billions from every World Cup, why does it need more money? And if its remit is to spread the game of football, then surely having its flagship event on as many television screens as possible is an ideal way to do this?
The same is even truer of the GAA, which is tied to a national identity and culture more than any sporting organisation in the world.
“The GAA was founded at a time when the very idea of an independent Ireland was a contested one,” writes historian Mike Cronin in ‘The GAA and its other activities’ in The Gaelic Athletic Association 1884-2009. “The 1880s was a time of innovation with respect to recapturing an ideal of what it meant to be Irish and how that might manifest itself.
“The GAA began with a far wider, sporting and cultural remit than many people would now recognise. In the 125 years of its existence the GAA has managed to support this broad remit, and has developed a series of sporting and cultural events that assist, even into the twenty-first century, the creation of a national ideal.”
While there is no doubting the contnuing popularity and cultural importance of the GAA in 2014, it remains to be seen whether its latest broadcast deal is true to the principles on which the organisation was founded and what kind of impact it will have on these most Irish of games. After all, there are countless examples of sports that Sky has changed forever – just ask the Premier League.