The battle may be lost but the war will rumble on

Sometimes you can have all the facts on your side and still lose an argument.

For five years, members of the GAA who opposed the Association’s deal with Sky Sports have routinely questioned the responses and figures from the GAA hierarchy when it comes to defending the deals it has made with Sky Sports.

The facts continue to show that the viewership of top matches shown on Sky Sports is about one 10 th of that of comparable matches shown on RTÉ. 

But that’s only on the good days for Sky — often the numbers are much worse than that.

And the viewership in England is so low as to scarcely merit consideration.

There is no surprise in any of this. The GAA hierarchy knew this would be the case when they gave Sky Sports exclusive rights to GAA matches.

And they knew it when they doubled down by renewing the deal two years ago and extending it, this time across five years.

They knew it because there is no sport anywhere that has shifted contests from free-to-air TV to pay-TV that has not seen its viewership collapse.

Research from across the world shows that people who are older or poorer or who live in rural areas are the ones who suffer the most.

This appears to have been lost on the people who designed the GAA’s new corporate logo which now flashes onto TV screens in the middle of matches.

It reads: “GAA: where we all belong”.

Or maybe the broadcast logo is intended as a masterclass in irony?

Either way, what is clear now is that the argument against the burgeoning relationship between Sky Sports and the GAA has been lost.

Today, the Keep Gaelic Games Free To Air campaign that has been run in the west of Ireland for the last four years has ended.

The chairman of the campaign, Seamus Ruttledge, said: “It’s intensely frustrating. But it’s the way things are gone. 

While we have got support — and we know that within many GAA people’ hearts, there has been a sense of revulsion about the pay-per-view deal with Sky Sports — that is not being reflected in hard action on the ground. 

People have not come out to make this known in the necessary numbers. Basically, GAA people seem reluctant to take action to support their opposition to the Sky/GAA deal.”

He continued: “At this point that there is nothing more that this Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air campaign can do to effect any change to the policy of pay-per-view for our Gaelic games. 

"It seems to me that the majority of GAA people are accepting the permanence of this corporate pay-per-view agenda that has been introduced by the paid hierarchy of the GAA. 

"In light of this reality, I do not see any point in continuing with the campaign. The unfortunate reality is that pay-per-view for Gaelic games may be here to stay.”

Although defeated, Seamus Ruttledge is unbowed: “I am very proud that at least we fought for what we believed in. 

It is important that there was an organised opposition the GAA’s pay-per-view agenda — and the Sky deal. We have lost but at least we fought.

There is another dimension to the decision to end the campaign: “On a personal level, working with the campaign has made it very difficult for me to enjoy the sport that I have loved all my life. 

"I have not fully enjoyed a game of football or hurling for that matter for a long time now — and I would dearly love to begin to enjoy them again. 

"I would say that our own personal convictions about the wrongs of the Sky deal — and our opposition to this sellout of our Gaelic games to Pay TV — still remain as strong as they were in the beginning and always will. 

"Indeed, the divisiveness of the GAA’s pay-per-view policy came home to me again last Saturday night when the Mayo v Roscommon Connacht Championship was exclusive to Sky Sports TV.

“I felt a familiar sense of anger and disappointment that the GAA continue with this policy, when it is obvious that it is excluding so many grassroots members and supporters of our Gaelic games. 

"Many of the older generation of GAA supporters in outer rural parts of County Mayo and Roscommon did not get to see this Connacht championship game at all. The corporate wing of the GAA seems content with this exclusion caused by the Sky deal. 

"They now even come with proclamations to tell us that we all ‘belong’. The opposite was how I felt. 

And over the coming weeks and months and years of the GAA championships, this exclusion will be felt by many thousands more GAA members and supporters in other counties.

During the Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air campaign, Ruttledge, and the men and women who worked with him, lobbied and argued and spent hour-after-hour working against the GAA decision to put its games behind a pay-wall.

The campaign repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of presenting yourself as a community organisation — and carrying certain rules in a rule book — while creating and operating a broadcasting policy that did the opposite.

It drew support from a dozen county councils who passed unanimous motions opposing the sale of GAA games from Sky Sports. 

At the same time, GAA clubs and county boards from Dublin to Clare passed motions in opposition to the deal.

The reality, however, is that once a second deal was signed with Sky Sports, the campaign was doomed.

Howling at the moon is not an attractive proposition.

Nonetheless, there is one more point that must be made.

When the GAA hierarchy put championship matches behind a paywall, they did so during the worst recession to hit Ireland in decades.

The levels of financial distress across the country have been well documented and the human cost to this has been acute. 

The GAA hierarchy showed no solidarity in its policymaking. It raised ticket prices and put its games behind paywalls.

But it did something even more cynical than that. It claimed that it was putting its games on Sky Sports for the benefit of emigrants at a time when many were again being forced to leave Ireland as economic migrants.

The Association has a proud record of enhancing the lives of Irish emigrants around the world — the decision to use emigration to attempt to justify its sale of games to Sky Sports is a stain on this record. 

It should be an acute source of embarrassment to those who made the claim.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD.

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