What the Sky deal actually did was significantly increase the costs for Irish emigrants in Britain who wish to watch Gaelic Games, writes Paul Rouse

The GAA’s decision to again sell the exclusive rights to almost one-third of all senior All-Ireland championship matches to Sky Sports comes as no surprise. The news was heavily leaked over the last two months.

But even before then, it was clear that walking away from Sky was not an option that would be taken. To walk away would have entailed acknowledging that the initial decision was an ill-judged one — and there was no chance of that happening.

That the GAA decided to break with its tradition of making media deals which last three years and decided to extend this new deal across the next five years is a new development, however.

The choice of a five-year deal is rooted in three basic desires: the first is to create the illusion that the deal with Sky is working well for the GAA; the second is to ‘normalise’ the idea that Gaelic football and hurling should be put behind an additional paywall and sold to Pay-TV sports channels; and the third is to create the space in order that more games can be added to Sky’s exclusive showings if the championship structure changes in two years time (it is not clear whether Sky Sports will get exclusive rights to half or one-third of the proposed 12 new quarter-final matches).

When the GAA announced its first Sky deal in early 2014, the association’s hierarchy said that it would review the deal as it expired. It was a plea, in essence, to give Sky a chance.

So what were the criteria used to measure success and failure? We do not know that because of the media management processes that the GAA put in place around this 2016 launch, only a limited number of interviews were arranged and there was no open press conference.

When it comes to TV, however, there is one basic measure of success around which everything else revolves — that is, of course, the number of people who watch.

We know that this matters to the GAA because its Director General Pádraic Duffy has said it does: “With us, we start from this point — how can we best promote the games and make them available to the maximum number of people?”

Now, over the past three years the average number of people who watch GAA matches on Sky Sports is less than one-10th of those who previously watched games on TV3 (who Sky Sports displaced).

Of course, the interview in which Duffy made those comments on maximising audiences is the same interview where he said the GAA was constrained from selling its games to Sky Sports and that this was “rightly” the case. He said then that the reason for such constraints was that there was “a sense that the GAA belonged to everybody in Ireland, that it’s in every parish and village”, and because of that, no sale of games to Sky Sports could be tolerated.

In the months after that interview was published, the GAA did its first Sky deal in 2014. The Director General must now feel an acute sense of embarrassment as he reviews his words. But he shouldn’t. They were in line with words spoken and written by GAA officials for more than two decades. And they are sentiments held by many GAA members across the country.

What remains unclear is why, precisely, policy changed so abruptly and why there is now a determination to make permanent that change?

It is timely to remember at this point that the initial logic provided in 2014 was that, above all else, the Sky deal was intended to serve emigrants.

It might come as a shock to people who actually believed that nonsense that the press release announcing the new deal made no mention of such ambitions in relation to Sky.

This was wise, however. In attempting to justify the last Sky deal, the GAA used figures that were wholly inaccurate and omitted such basic facts as were inconvenient to its arguments.

Worse that that, trading on emigration as a justification for selling games to Sky was a deeply cynical exercise. And, as if to underline the extent of that cynicism, it should be pointed out that every Irish emigrant with a basic TV package in England could already purchase the rights to watch Gaelic Games on Premier Sports for £10 per month, long before any deal was done with Sky.

What the Sky deal actually did was significantly increase the costs for Irish emigrants in Britain who wish to watch Gaelic Games.

This remains the case for the new Sky deal — and, worse again, the online GAAGO which broadcasts Gaelic Games all over the world will not be allowed show the matches that Sky Sports have in Britain. Why should Irish emigrants in Britain be discriminated against in this way?

It is a pity that the GAA hierarchy did not address these issues (and a range of other questions) in announcing their new Sky deal.

So what have the GAA actually said about the Sky deal on this occasion?

Marty Morrissey recorded a fascinating interview in Croke Park with GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail which was broadcast on several RTÉ programmes. In the course of this interview, the President made some excellent points about the GAA’s commitment to TG4 and to local radio. These are things to be applauded.

But when asked what was the logic to going with Sky Sports in the light of low viewership figures and the fact that large sections of the community do not have access to Sky Sports, there was simply nothing coherent forthcoming.

Ultimately, though, Ó Feaghail claimed that the new media deal was “the best to date for us from a commercial level”. This brings us to the nub of matters. And in the process it demonstrates just have far the GAA hierarchy has travelled in three years.

When it made its deal with Sky Sports in early 2014, there was one thing it was absolutely adamant about: this was a deal that was not about the money.

Indeed, the suggestion “that the GAA went to Sky for the money” was utterly rejected.

Such claims, a Dáil Committee was told by the GAA hierarchy, were “cynical” and “cynicism has always been the easy refuge of those who are afraid to engage in analysis and reasonable debate”.

Now, though, it would seem it is only about the money. And, sure, in the process, if it means that it costs Irish emigrants in Britain a lot more to watch the games, then so be it.

Where does this leave those who oppose the GAA’s Sky deal?

This opposition has previously been described by Páraic Duffy as “whining and moaning”, while Aogán Ó Fearghail claimed not to “know exactly the reasons” for the feelings of those who were opposed.

Despite this, the opposition among GAA members remains real. It can be seen, for example, in motions opposing the Sky deal that have been passed by GAA clubs from places as disparate as rural Clare and inner-city Dublin.

It is absolutely the case that earlier this year the GAA Annual Congress voted down a motion put by Dublin GAA disallowing all future sales of TV rights to subscription pay-TV companies.

But the debate at Congress was not conducted on the merits of the Sky deal; it was on whether it was prudent to tie the hands of the GAA in advance of future negotiations.

The problem for the GAA hierarchy is that opposition to the Sky deal remains significant.

In recent months the ‘Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air’ campaign has gathered momentum. Every county council across Connacht has now unanimously passed a motion condemning the GAA for selling its games to Sky. They have been joined by Kerry County Council. This can easily be dismissed as irrelevant, but it remains an expression of discontent in the GAA’s heartlands.

Does any of this really matter?

It matters because the GAA is built and depends, in the first instance, on a vast voluntary endeavour. Over the past three years, disastrous viewing figures have underlined just how extensively the GAA has disenfranchised its own volunteers in communities all across Ireland by shifting championship games to Sky Sports.

These are people who have given, or continue to give, a lifetime of service to the association and there is no hiding from a decline which approaches 90% in terms of home viewership.

And it will matter all the more when the new football championship proposals are passed and Sky increases the number of games that it has exclusive rights to.

Three years ago the GAA hierarchy chose a path in selling games to Sky. This year’s deal pushes the GAA further down that path. The GAA hierarchy may not wish to acknowledge this unpalatable fact, but the reality is more money for the GAA, more costs for ordinary members.


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