Paul Rouse: Time for GAA to deliver a clear picture on its broadcasting policy

We are only at the beginning of the change that the internet is bringing to how sport is organised.
Paul Rouse: Time for GAA to deliver a clear picture on its broadcasting policy

Even before the Covid crisis, there were clubs and organisations in Ireland live-streaming their own sporting events and trying to get people to buy passes on-line.

We are only at the beginning of the change that the internet is bringing to how sport is organised.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in looking at the broadcasting operations of the world’s leading sports bodies.

And one of the key forces in shaping the operations of every significant sporting organisation is its approach to the media.

In recent decades, basketball has grown to become the second most popular sport in the world. This popularity is rooted in the reach of American popular culture (its music, films, TV shows and fashion), but it is also made possible by clarity of strategy when it comes to marketing, communications and broadcasting.

The reach of American sports has accelerated in the new millennium and this acceleration has been enormously facilitated by the internet.

There is a brilliant story in the biography of the late LA Lakers star play Kobe Bryant; he spent formative years of his childhood growing up in Italy where his father had travelled to play and coach basketball.

Bryant’s grandparents used to videotape basketball matches that were being shown on American television and send the VHS tapes across the Atlantic Ocean by post. As a child who was obsessed with the game played by his father, he devoured the tapes in showing after showing once they arrived, several weeks after a game was played.

There is no wait necessary now for any child who wishes to see a major American basketball match. Instead, having a smartphone, or a laptop, or a tablet of some description, allows you to watch any National Basketball Association match, either live or in replay.

You don’t need a television and don’t need to depend on what a broadcaster chooses to show you. You just need to download the NBA app and buy an online subscription.

And it is an approach to broadcasting that is repeated in other American sports, notably by the National Football League and by Major League Baseball.

By the way, these sporting organisations still sell their games to the major American television networks to ensure that they still pick up general viewers.

As the sports broadcasting market increasingly splinters into ever more slender pieces, this revolution in broadcasting offers a direct route from sporting organisations to fans. And presents the possibility of huge sums being paid by way of subscription.

Of course, it must be noted that the sheer scale of American sports and the extent of their existing commercialization offer them a massive advantage as they seek to extend their sphere of influence. This is true within America, but also across the globe.

Live-streaming

But it is an approach that is also scalable. And it is a basic fact of modern media, that – ordinarily – where American broadcasting of sport leads, the rest of the world almost invariably follows.

Even before the Covid crisis, there were clubs and organisations in Ireland live-streaming their own sporting events and trying to get people to buy passes on-line.

But, as history reveals time and again, one of the things that crises do is to accelerate change that is already underway.

You can see this in the successful establishment of the WatchLOI.ie whose streaming of League of Ireland matches made it possible for that League to be played this summer and autumn.

What does all of this mean for the GAA and for the future of sports broadcasting in Ireland? Visions of the future were made real this summer as County Boards across the country expanded their own coverage of club games and presented them on platforms where they could be accessed by people who were barred from attendance.

It is not that some counties had not been doing this already, rather that they now developed their capacity dramatically in response to changed circumstances. The sporting world – and the broadcast of sport – will not return in its pre-Covid form.

These changed circumstances now demand that the GAA revise its broadcasting policy.

For almost a decade, this policy has lacked coherence and logic. The Association’s officers have tied themselves into rhetorical knots while attempting to explain commercial decisions which sit entirely opposed to the expressed foundational premise of the Association’s existence.

In the process, some of these officers were prone to making claims that were unsubstantiated by facts and prone, also, to making decisions that were difficult to comprehend.

There are various examples of this. One of them is GAAGO – an internet-based streaming service that carries GAA matches, jointly-owned by the GAA and RTÉ. It is ironic, given its current importance, that the very conception of GAAGO offers a prime example of the incoherence of the GAA’s broadcasting policy.

When the service was set up in 2014, it was designed as a subscription service which was only available outside Ireland. 

It meant that emigrants could pay an annual subscription to watch all matches broadcast on television in Ireland.

The exception was Britain which, of course, is a huge market for Gaelic games outside Ireland. Because of the GAA’s deal with Sky Sports, none of the matches broadcast by Sky were available on GAAGO – this included all All-Ireland finals and semi-finals. This exclusion still continues – and it is exceptionally costly for emigrants who are buying both subscriptions.

But the resumption of inter-county play over the last fortnight has seen GAAGO take on an entirely new aspect; for the first time it began to stream live National Football League matches within Ireland. This allowed for coverage of every match in every division.

And by the end of the first three weekends of championship matches, GAAGO will have streamed every provincial and All-Ireland championship match not shown live on television.

The cost of each match is €5.

It means that 35 championship matches are being carried live on television before Christmas; the remaining 12 games are available on GAAGO.

When you look at the manner in which the games are being covered between the broadcasters (between league and championship), it is apparent that RTÉ, TG4 and BBC NI, as public service broadcasters, have significantly increased their coverage of a condensed season.

It speaks volumes that RTÉ was willing to put games simultaneously on two of its channels (as it did with Tyrone v Donegal, and Mayo v Leitrim last weekend). It also speaks volumes that RTÉ and BBC NI are willing to broadcast matches simultaneously.

The numbers of people who watch Gaelic games on free-to-air television is huge. Take for example when Limerick played Clare in the quarter-final of the Munster Senior Hurling Championship. The average audience for that match was 326,000 and the audience peaked at 397,000.

Those are figures that will be dramatically higher than any match streamed this year. But what the summer showed at club level – and what the autumn has shown so far at inter-county level, through the League – is that there is space for a streaming service.

Other demands

To fully deliver such a service the GAA will need to ensure that there is an adequate broadband link from its major grounds; the wider societal broadband problem remains, but this, in time, will hopefully be overcome.

It also demands, ultimately, that floodlighting be put in at its premier grounds. It is striking that even grounds such as Nowlan Park have no floodlighting, while only Castlebar of the major grounds in Connacht is floodlit.

The question of where the GAA goes from here with its broadcasting policy is now crucial. A starting point must be the question of what precisely the GAA is trying to achieve. It would be really interesting to see a succinct expression of the answer to that question. Currently, no such answer is apparent.

The current five-year broadcasting deal runs out next year. The negotiation of a new deal, to run from the summer of 2022, offers an opportunity to define policy in a way that is clear and coherent.

The evidence of broadcasting in the pandemic thus far is that a mix of public service partners – RTÉ, TG4 and BBC NI – with GAAGO at national level, coupled with county boards working with local partners, offers the most comprehensive service, and one that carries long term sustainability.

Perhaps the new President – Larry McCarthy – will take hold of the matter, once he assumes office. His time in America and his professional expertise means he is perfectly equipped to take on the challenge.

He will know, too, the disappointment in his home county of Cork that their hurlers were on Sky Sports for their Munster semi-final and will be there again for the qualifier match against Dublin.

It is in details such as that that the reality of the GAA’s broadcasting deals are revealed.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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