The box in the corner still captures sport’s biggest moments

A crucial detail to emerge from the ongoing row in the UK about the BBC taking away free TV licences for over-75s concerns the age of people who actually watch TV. The average age of a BBC1 viewer, it turns out, is 61, and a year older for BBC2. In other words, a large proportion of the Beeb’s customers do not pay for the service, hence the decision to make Grandma stump up for the Antiques Roadshow.

Putting aside the political firestorm the decision has sparked — coming in the middle of a Tory leadership contest, which will eventually see two candidates put before the famously Jurassic party membership — the numbers suggest that traditional TV is drifting off into its sunset years, gently snoozing its way into irrelevance.

The age breakdown is similar in Ireland, with those who actually watch telly in the old-fashioned way ‘skewing old’, in the industry parlance. Younger viewers are not ‘engaging’ with linear television, worried insiders say. Millennials flutter from streaming services to social media apps to catch-up players, greedy TV execs chasing after them desperately.

And yet when it comes to sport, the box in the corner of the living room retains an extraordinary ability to define the biggest moments.

Take the tale of two World Cups. BBC coverage of England v Scotland in the Fifa Women’s World Cup peaked at six million viewers as compared to the average of 550,000 watching the England cricketers on Sky Sports in the Cricket World Cup. These figures are being seen as a watershed moment for women’s football, but they are also an example of the enduring power of terrestrial TV to capture a nation, even the pesky millenials.

While women’s football capitalises on its unprecedented platform to win new audiences, English cricket fans have complained that being sequestered away on a pay channel means the sport has blown the opportunity for growth that hosting a World Cup should provide. Those without access to Sky Sports have been reduced to a diet of social media clips and late-night Channel 4 highlights, thin gruel rather than what should be a feast for what was traditionally England’s summer sport.

Whereas cricket fans in the UK have been unable to watch top-class matches unfold live on terrestrial television since the mid-noughties — a decision which enriched governing body coffers but saw a drop off in participation and media coverage — the happy medium for most sports is a mix of free-to-air showcase events and revenue-generating pay-TV deals.

Without a horse in the race to cheer for, Irish viewing figures for the Women’s World Cup on RTÉ and TG4 have so far more been more modest, with the numbers roughly similar to those that a League of Ireland match might attract. Still, the very fact that every game is available to watch will still surely only grow interest in women’s football here.

But if watching the tournament has whetted your appetite, say, to watch England’s Women’s Super League next season, you will have to get access to BT Sport. Football, long criticised for selling its soul to satellite broadcasters, has generally maintained a presence on terrestrial television for big events like cup finals and major championships.

To declare an interest, I work for a station that combines free-to-air and subscriber-only broadcasts of European football. Rugby too has kept national moments like Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam triumph available for all, while putting most club games involving the same Irish stars behind paywalls.

This balance suits the sports, but it also suits broadcasters. There is simply too much sport for any free-to-air broadcaster to show: they can’t stuff their schedules full of sport to the detriment of other programming, even if that means

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must exist. Pay-TV broadcasters can then sell the rest via subscriptions to the niche fan happy to pony up for their passion.

It’s worth bearing this principle in mind when it comes to how the GAA might organise and sell its games in future. This, you are no doubt aware, is a subject of almost constant discussion now, and no Championship restructuring proposal is complete without a reference to how the sexy new set-up would be marketed and broadcast.

The GAA’s current Championship tweaks have already thrown up deep dissatisfaction with broadcasting arrangements. There is unhappiness at the lack of live coverage of the football championship while the hurling round-robins take centre stage; the sketchy, lo-fi snippets of early round qualifier action; and the almost total absence of any coverage of the lower tier hurling competitions, which we are told are brilliant but no one ever really sees.

There are more games now than the GAA’s current broadcasting deals can handle, and it’ll only get worse if further restructuring creates more matches. Say, for example, that, in order to keep the weaker counties happy, the GAA make acquisition of TV rights conditional on providing coverage of the Joe McDonagh Cup and whatever football equivalent eventually transpires. Add that to the leagues, underage and club competitions and, of course, their women’s equivalents, and you have a truckload of produce looking for a shop window.

For reasons mentioned above, there is no guarantee free-to-air broadcasters would find a home for all this. Sport is expensive to produce and, contrary to popular belief, only the very biggest events are profitable for commercial TV, while it’s unlikely that publicly funded broadcasters could justify spending much more of the licence fee on sport than they currently do.

So what will the GAA do given the demand to see their games? Extend its often-unpopular dalliance with pay-TV? Look to develop the mythical and much-trumpeted GAA TV? Leave clubs and counties to explore cheaper streaming options for lower profile matches with more local interest?

People want to watch the games, but finding the right way to let them do so is the challenge — even if the old box in the corner will still capture a nation on the biggest days.

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