JOHN FOGARTY: Dark clouds surrounding Sky

Almost like clockwork, Paul Rouse has tweeted each Monday with the latest Sky Sports live GAA viewing figures in Ireland.

While others have been blissfully ignorant, Rouse, a UCD lecturer in Irish history and the history of sport, has kept a watchful brief on how the British broadcasters' coverage has been faring both here and in the UK.

The numbers make for sober reading. He posted late last night but the figures for this country are readily available. Saturday’s Tipperary-Offaly game drew an average viewership of 27,815 in Ireland, just 2.2% of the audience share.

Compare that to RTÉ on Saturday, where the Wexford-Clare replay picked up 320,800 (34% share) or Sunday’s Munster SHC final (458,200, 50.74%) and the Connacht SFC final (285,800, 38.61%).

Since the April 1 confirmation of the GAA-Sky Sports deal, Rouse, along with his colleague Mark Duncan, have been unwavering in their criticism of the deal.

Their reservations were founded in precedent. Rouse’s excellent paper on the impact of pay TV on sport is quickly turning into a told you so. He wrote: “The strength of universal public service broadcasting is that it provides equality of access to every community within a country — pay tv subverts this equality.

“The evidence is everywhere: when a sport moves to pay tv, people who are older or poorer or who live in rural areas are substantially less likely to be able to watch it, regardless of their interest in or commitment to that sport. But, even in cities, significantly fewer people watch sport on pay tv than watch it on free-to-air channels.”

It must be stated Sky Sports’ framing of Gaelic games has been impressive. Their production values are just as strong as they are for their mainline sports. Sadly, that is not the point. As Duncan tweeted last month: “Quality of Sky coverage an irrelevance: this is all about exclusivity, access & GAA values.”

Industry experts will tell you Sky Sports have allowed RTÉ to steal a march on them by screening their games on Saturday evenings when sports viewership, especially in Ireland, is traditionally lower than Sunday. There appears little logic in sacrificing a stake in Championship Sunday, as TV3 had enjoyed for some part.

But last Saturday week saw RTÉ and Sky Sports go head-to-head in earnest for the first time this summer. It wasn’t a ratings war as much as a bludgeoning. The average number of viewers for the Tipperary-Galway qualifier on Sky Sports was 34,000, a share of 2.8%. Earlier in the day, the Clare-Wexford qualifier shown live on RTÉ attracted an average of 203,000, 25% of the market. The following day’s Kilkenny-Dublin Leinster final — also on RTÉ —attained 385,000, a representation of 36%.

According to the figures sourced by Rouse, the first Armagh-Monaghan Ulster semi-final game on Sky last month was watched by an average of just 10,200, less than 1% of market share. Almost 9,000 more people went to the game than saw it on non-HD Sky Sports 3 at home.

And there’s more: the Galway-Sligo Connacht semi-final? An average of 17,000 (1.6%) compared to 340,000 (42%) who caught the Kilkenny-Galway Leinster hurling semi-final on RTÉ the same weekend.

Dublin v Wexford Leinster SHC semi-final? Just 17,500 (1.6% share). Sky Sports’ live GAA debut, Kilkenny and Offaly’s Leinster SHC quarter-final? 31,800 (2.9%). In the UK, it returned a paltry 14,000 average and a frighteningly low 0.07% proportion of the audience share. Sky Sports would stress the Irish figures are not entirely accurate as they don’t include those subscribers with HD boxes or those who watched games in pubs here.

In fact, the GAA has been doing the spinning for them: president Liam O’Neill maintaining the focus should be on the UK market.

He said earlier this month: “It doesn’t take into account the people looking at it in HD, I think it doesn’t take into account the people in the pubs where they have Sky Sports.

“We were never that worried about the people in Ireland watching the game on Sky. It was for Britain we did the Sky deal and the numbers there are standing up very well. We have seen their Twitter reaction to it and we are getting anecdotal evidence from our clubs in Britain that it’s proving a huge success because they are now able to show, the parents of young people are trying to engage in schools, that this is the game and this is what it looks like.”

However, if the dismal numbers in the UK that took in Kilkenny-Offaly are anything to go by, the Sky Sports deal has not been a success and may never be. It might just happen that the broadcasters, contrary to what we might have believed previously, will be pulled rather than pushed away by the poor audience figures.

But when so few are watching or, to be more precise, able to watch Gaelic games through the medium of Sky here, shouldn’t that be the primary concern?


Cork’s real target is September

We hate to be the party pooper but given Cork have thrown their Munster monkey off the back, they must now do something only they have managed to do in the last 12 seasons: claim an All-Ireland title as champions of the province. Not since Cork in 2006 — before that it was Tipperary in 2001 — has a Munster team gone undefeated in the Championship. A remarkable statistic if not for the presence of Kilkenny who have beaten Munster champions six times in that period. Actually, no Munster finalists have lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup since that John Allen team did the business, so recent history doesn’t bode too well for Limerick either.

Kilkenny have made light of the gap between the Leinster final and the All-Ireland semi-final but Munster winners have fared far worse, winning just two of the eight games from 2006 on (Tipperary in 2009 and ‘11).

Fifteen years ago, Jimmy Barry-Murphy defied the theory that you can’t win anything with kids. Now he must prove Munster champions can ride high in September as well as July. Who’d put it past him?

Munster seeding simply not on

Oh, how times have changed. Before last year’s league, Martin McHugh had a dig at the state of football in Munster: “People talk about Gaelic football being strong in Munster in Division Four — there is no Ulster team in Division 4 of nine counties.”

Next year, there will be one Munster county in the lowest division, as there will be from Ulster.

More importantly, of the 14 teams left in the Championship, there are four Munster counties, compared to three from Ulster.

Along with Kerry and Cork, Tipperary are guaranteed to be in the last 12 while Armagh must beat Roscommon to reach the last round of the qualifiers. The developing football counties in Munster can deal with snobbery but that shown to Cork and Kerry in seeding this year’s competition is not acceptable. The sooner the other four counties are unshackled, the better.


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