PADDY HEANEY: Money talks loudest as Sky’s the limit for GAA

Sky Sports. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I see those two words, a large, neon-lit ‘£40’ immediately flashes inside my head.

I don’t normally attach a monetary value to the name of every product or service I hear. But for some reason, Sky Sports is an exception.

I blame my childhood. Raised in an era when people grappled with the idea of paying for a TV licence, I have always struggled with the concept of paying to watch television.

Recently a friend was astonished when I informed him that I don’t subscribe to Sky Sports.

“But you’re a sports reporter?” he exclaimed.

“That’s true,” I replied. Then I pointed out that 99% of the sporting events I cover are played with an O’Neills size five. I don’t need Sky to do my job.

It’s not that I don’t like soccer. I do. But the Champions League and Match of the Day easily meet my needs.

Being honest, I would like to have Sky Sports for the cycling coverage. But I couldn’t justify the cost. At £40 (€48)-a-month, it’s just too pricey.

And from what I can discern, a lot of other GAA members take the same view. A standard landline and internet connection costs about €36 a month here in the North. A typical mobile phone bill is another €36. Throw in Sky Sports and €120 has gone from the kitty before a loaf of bread is bought.

The only friend I have who actually subscribes to Sky Sports writes it off as a business expense. A freelance journalist, he files the bill under “research”.

Interestingly, we GAA heads who have resisted Sky’s charms present a major problem to them.

As people who have an interest in sport, we are part of their target market. They know we are potential customers. Sky’s problem is their package doesn’t include the sport that will tempt us to sign on the dotted line.

Sky has another major problem in Ireland. The moment the English Premier League ends, their viewing figures take a nosedive.

A lot of Irish customers try to cancel their subscriptions. Because advertising rates are based on audience numbers, Sky’s profits take a tumble during summer.

During June, July and August, Sky has worked out that the typical Irishman is tuning into RTÉ, BBC and TV3. A few years ago, Sky’s executives worked out that they need to start broadcasting Gaelic games. They expressed their interest to the GAA. But the powers-that-be in Croke Park were hesitant. Terrified of the backlash that might ensue if they jumped into bed with Rupert Murdoch, they didn’t pursue the opportunity.

Undeterred, Sky has learned from experience that if you have enough cash, then you can buy just about anything. Football and hurling are no exception.

And if the GAA’s resolve hasn’t already buckled, then it’s on the verge of collapse.

In an interview with Today FM last week, Peter McKenna, the GAA’s commercial director revealed that Croke Park will now consider a bid from Sky Sports. Fresh negotiations for broadcasting rights are due to get underway in the next few weeks.

McKenna wasn’t on a solo run. A Croke Park insider told me two months ago that the GAA’s hierarchy is now prepared to do a deal with Sky.

The logic is understandable. Just by allowing Sky to sit at the table, the GAA reckons they will be able to wrangle a better deal from RTÉ.

Even though the BBC and TV3 broadcast games, they don’t offer any meaningful competition. RTÉ basically dictate how much they will pay. For instance, the BBC doesn’t give the GAA a single penny. Following the last contract, RTÉ signed a subsidiary deal with the BBC. In return for covering the cost of outside broadcasts, RTÉ allowed the BBC to screen Ulster Championship games.

Naturally, all of this causes considerable pain to the GAA. Because RTÉ enjoys a virtual monopoly, they don’t believe they are getting a fair price for their product. A bit of competition from Sky would change that dynamic.

And there are other non-commercial reasons why the GAA believes a deal with Sky would be beneficial.

More recently, the GAA has acknowledged that it has failed the Irish diaspora in Britain and the US, many of whom are still trekking to pubs to watch games.

The GAA now wants Gaelic games to be broadcast into homes and it is currently talking to a major US TV network. Similarly, a deal with Sky could transform the GAA’s exposure in Britain.

Sky’s high standard of production is the third reason why the GAA is keen to include them at the table. With cameras covering every blade of grass and from every angle imaginable, Sky has the wherewithal to show us games like we have never seen them before. Again, the GAA reckons this competition would do RTÉ no harm.

All things considered, it makes a lot of commercial sense for the GAA to do business with Sky. However, what Croke Park executives like Peter McKenna must always remember is this — the GAA is not a commercial organisation. The Official Guide tells us: “The primary purpose of the GAA is the organisation of native pastimes and the promotion of athletic fitness as a means to create a disciplined, self- reliant, national-minded manhood. The overall result is the expression of a people’s preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones.”

Worthy ideals. But can our young men afford to watch Gaelic games on a foreign, pay-per-view channel? Youth unemployment in the South is almost 30%. Young people on the reduced job seeker’s allowance receive €100 a week. And let’s not afford forget about our old men. The state pension in Northern Ireland is €79 a week. That doesn’t leave much scope for a subscription to Sky Sports.

Furthermore, the argument that a deal with Sky will generate more revenue for the Association simply doesn’t wash with the GAA’s grassroots.

The view of the ordinary foot soldier was summed up perfectly by a man with whom I discussed this issue yesterday. When informed of the extra income the GAA stands to make from signing a deal with Sky, he replied: “So if the GAA makes more money, does that mean people will stop coming to my door trying to sell tickets? Does it mean the GAA will stop tormenting people for money?”

It’s a valid point, but one which the GAA is virtually guaranteed to ignore. And that’s why I will soon be paying a visit to our accounts department.

I need to find out if I can include a subscription to Sky Sports as part of my monthly expenses.


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