Paul Rouse on the changing culture of The Sunday Game and why now faces its biggest challenge
There was a pub off Rue de Rivoli in the middle of Paris named the Flann O’Brien. Back in the hot summer of 1998, with the World Cup in full swing and locals everywhere consumed with the idea of a potential French victory, another — more local — sporting institution was much more important to the dozens of Irish people who were wedged into the small bar.
The bar had a TV in the corner and — allowing for the way the memory plays tricks — on the afternoon of the replayed 1998 Munster Hurling final between Waterford and Clare, the picture was flecked and grainy, like it might have been back in the 1960s.
In the Parisian heat, with the drink flying and the crush of bodies of bodies, there was surge of human electricity when Willie Barrett threw in the ball. Colin Lynch laid into his own fellow midfielder Ollie Baker, as well as into Tony Browne and Peter Queally of Waterford.
With every lash of the hurley, the roars of the crowd in the pub grew louder and louder. It was thrilling and wild. Among those enthralled were my three brothers and me, completely given to what was happening on the television. With the blood rising, by the time it was over, it seemed eminently possible that the Louvre would be ransacked by a horde of people who had been transported home from a beautiful city to a field where old passions held primal sway.
The power of television to make such connections within the GAA had begun when the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals were broadcast on the newly-established RTÉ television station in 1962. It was a bold leap of faith; these matches allowed for live broadcasts of the All-Ireland championships a full two decades before the Football League in England was willing to sanction the same experiment.
Almost two decades later, the move to establish a highlights show of GAA matches in 1979 was a clear imitation of Match of the Day on BBC and The Big Match on ITV.
The arrival of The Sunday Game highlights show was followed more than a decade later by The Sunday Game Live. In his annual report of 1994, Liam Mulvihill, Director-General of the GAA, acknowledged that the association needed to combat the increased profile of major international sports in Ireland.
In particular, he noted: “We must accept that high-quality television coverage of our games is essential and that the series [of programmes] must range over a reasonably long period if we are to attract young people in the numbers that we require.”
By the end of 1996 live television coverage of Gaelic games had become an essential part of the Irish summer. This change was coupled with a new approach from the GAA sponsorship, and what followed was a sustained era of growth in every aspect of the GAA, driven by marketing, the redevelopment of Croke Park and a vastly-enhanced profile.
n both its edited highlights or its live format, The Sunday Game instantly became an essential point for conversation within the GAA — and it remains so, despite the manner in which the media landscape and broader Irish society have changed.
Whether you consider the pundits, the commentators and the presenters informative or infuriating, there is no doubting their relevance to debate about the GAA.
But relevance is not something that is set in stone. There is now a massive challenge for The Sunday Game. This challenge is essentially two-fold. The new media landscape means that the days of RTÉ having a guaranteed dominance of the airwaves have long passed. Year after year, the competition for relevance grows more acute. This is not a simple matter of competing with Sky Sports — indeed, when it comes to that competition, RTÉ wins easily. The relative viewing figures make that clear.
Instead, the competition from social media channels and the globalising nature of the technological revolution of which we are only in the early stages will accelerate the challenges facing RTÉ. This is a revolution that is changing society, not just changing broadcasting and the nature of this change is profound and will leave no aspect of life untouched.
The second challenge relates to the changing nature of the GAA. For all the rhetoric that the organisation indulges in, there is no denying that there has been a shift in the balance of its operations in the new millennium. This shift has gathered momentum in recent years and it relates to a dramatically increased commercialisation of everything that the GAA does at central level. The Association has a broadcasting policy that is random and lurches from position to position. The result is that there can be no comfort for anyone in what it might come next.
Allowing for all that, it should also be remembered that this has been an incredibly successful partnership. It works not because of love, but because of shared dependency. The Sunday Game remains something that the GAA needs in order to maximise its reach across Ireland. The viewing figures for any year across the last four decades make this abundantly clear. If you want to draw in the largest crowd, The Sunday Game is the best vehicle — the evidence leaves this to be undeniable. For all that there has been a fragmentation in televised sport, The Sunday Game remains — weekend after weekend, year after year — the most important sports programme in the country.
Equally, RTÉ needs the GAA. Given the losses that the organisation has suffered and continues to suffer. Coverage of Gaelic games is the jewel in the crown of the RTÉ summer. At a time when the very existence of the station is under medium-term threat, Gaelic games are more vital to it than ever before.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.