”There’s obviously a feeling, no doubt, in certain quarters, and I don’t know exactly the reasons, some aren’t happy with the coverage,” said GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghail last week, referring to the ongoing negative reaction to the GAA’s decision to sell exclusive rights to championship matches to Sky Sports.
So, here are just a few reasons for the unhappiness:
Over the two years since it agreed to sell exclusive rights to broadcast almost one-third of its championship games to Sky Sports, the GAA hierarchy has dismissed opposition to the deal as ‘whining and moaning’ and has claimed the deal has been a ‘huge success.’ This is nonsense. For example, the average home viewership in the UK for the 2015 All-Ireland SHC final on Sky Sports was 29,700.
Even in Ireland, for as high profile a hurling championship game as Cork v Clare in 2015, the average viewership on Sky Sports who had exclusive rights, was 37,700. These figures are atrocious – even if you allow for the addition of HD a small, unknown number of HD viewers. And here are a few comparisons to put them in context. On 17 June 2015 (to pick one random night), the average viewership for ‘Oireachtas Report’, when it was shown after midnight on RTÉ One, was 44,400.
And, to choose another random programme, last Thursday’s 4.30pm showing of ‘Judge Judy’ on TV3 drew an average viewership of 39,600.
Basically, high-quality live hurling championship matches shown on Sky Sports in Ireland and in England draw fewer viewers than repeats of Judge Judy and the post-midnight ‘highlights’ of Dáil Debates in the middle of summer.
For more than 20 years the GAA had repeatedly said it would never do a deal with Sky. It made these assurances in speeches and in interviews and in letters to government. The reasons for refusal to deal with Sky were set out brilliantly by the Association’s General Secretary Páraic Duffy when interviewed by Michael Moynihan for his GAAconomics book, published in late 2013. Mr. Duffy said the GAA would not sell TV rights to Sky because it could not do so even if only 10% of the population didn’t have Sky. He continued: ‘There’s a sense the GAA belongs to everybody in Ireland, that it’s in every parish and village, and that there’d be enormous resistance if we were to take the games off free-to-air, even though the majority (sic) of the population probably has access to Sky.’ Six months later, Mr. Duffy announced that a deal had been done with Sky.
Having done what it said it would never do, it was crucial the GAA hierarchy set out a clear explanation for its u-turn. It did the opposite: No plausible explanation has yet been offered. The most usual reason advanced is the deal was made for the benefit of Irish emigrants (in Britain). For example, when the GAA hierarchy appeared before a Dáil Committee in April 2014, it claimed that, in making the deal, its ‘priority’ was the provision of games to Irish emigrants.
But every Irish emigrant living in Britain already had the opportunity to watch GAA matches. Premier Sports, part of the Setanta Sports organisation, had since 2009 broadcast every championship match shown live in Ireland across Britain, as well as club games and league games amounting to some 100 games in a year. And it did so for a subscription of £10 a month. Under the Sky deal, Premier lost 20 inter- county matches that would now be shown on Sky in Britain, including the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals, though they retained the remaining games as previously.
The upshot is that, instead of just paying £10 per month for Premier Sports, emigrants who wish to see all televised GAA championship matches now also have to pay at least £30 per month for Sky Sports.
When they appeared before the Dáil Committee, the GAA hierarchy seemed for some reason to have forgotten the deal with Premier Sports to show games in Britain existed or had ever existed. Either ways, they never mentioned it – and the Sky Sports package was presented as something new and entirely different.
And, all the while, it was clear the men representing the GAA had no idea how many people in Ireland or in Britain subscribed to Sky Sports. How can you make policy like this?
Ultimately, when you strip away the rhetoric of serving emigrants what you are left with is the provision of a service that was already available but is now fragmented, and now costs at least four times the previous price.
In the middle of a brutal recession the GAA hierarchy chose to put almost one-third of its live championship games on Pay-TV. Surveys show putting a sport on Pay-TV means 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.
The collapse in viewership that occurs is apparent across every sport. In the case of the GAA, the average viewership on TV3 for GAA matches in 2013 was 288,900 – that is more than 10 times higher than the Sky average for 2014 and 2015. For an organisation which makes such play about its community base and its commitment to sport-for-all, it is difficult to see how this change make sense or fits with its proclaimed ethos.
And, in the context of the financial pressures people across the country have been facing since the crash, was it really fair to do this?
Once again a picture reveals more than any number of words. In the hours after Mayo defeated Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final, a photograph taken in the Mayo town of Balla was circulating all across social media.
It shows people crowded into a house and others gaping through the windows – all trying to see the Mayo-Donegal match which was exclusively live on Sky Sports. Similar photographs were taken of people crowding around radios in the 1930s.
An average of 48,300 watched this match at home on Sky Sports in Ireland, with a further 31,300 watching in the UK. The last time these two teams had met at the quarter-final stage was in 2013 – the number of people who watched that broadcast on TV3 averaged 442,800.
The picture beautifully illustrates the real meaning of the GAA hierarchy’s decision to sell its games to Pay-TV. Of course, in the way of things, it will probably be burnished and spun as the GAA bringing people together.
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