Sky deal an opportunity to spread GAA gospel and rebuild social cohesion

The GAA is a conservative and traditional organisation but it is far from backward.

Sky deal an opportunity to spread GAA gospel and rebuild social cohesion

The new three-year deal on broadcast coverage of the football and hurling championships is one that will deliver millions of new viewers and recognises fully the changing nature of the way in which fans, audiences and sponsors are viewing sport.

There has been a backlash from a number of areas, not least on the airwaves of our national broadcaster.

The general tone of criticism is that introducing pay TV on 14 games a year will take the sports away from the core audience that has contributed to the building of the association.

Some of the critics would oppose change in any form but the majority are genuine in their concerns. So are they right to be worried? In response, it must be put that there are always options.

Going to a match is undoubtedly the best alternative, but sitting in Croke Park or standing on the terraces of Páirc Uí Caoimh or Nowlan Park has always been pay-per-view.

Remember the local storms that came about when full height turnstiles prevented kids being lifted in for free? The association survived.

It is possible now to bring kids along to matches they will remember forever, with family and friends whose connection is often based on the sport they witness together, for as little as €3 a game.

If an eight-year-old is sitting in front of a TV, are they really likely to avoid the distraction of games on phones or even just wandering out to kick or puck a ball themselves?

It is only in going to a match that the adrenaline on which lifelong commitment is formed will flow freely.

To those who argue it will drive families and young children into pubs and exposure to alcohol, I say open your mind and use your imagination.

There will always be a local home willing to host a party, or even a publican who will, on request, choose to have a family day with booze-free areas.

There is genuine concern over the fact that the elderly in a rural environment will have their weekly highlight of a match on the telly taken away. Well, rather than bemoan this, let’s make it a positive. Let’s not feel sorry; let’s start feeling like a community.

Build a network of people who will collect the old and the lonely and come together at the club or a central point in towns and villages where the match is being shown.

Let’s elevate our games from a Sunday staple to a genuine connection among people that modern life has forced apart.

Take those games and others as a positive step towards social cohesion by rebuilding a connected community of individuals.

The reality is that TV viewing is now a different experience than it was five years ago, never mind 20. If a family was to sit down in a living room to watch a match the chances are that most will be watching, tweeting, sharing or texting their own views through mobile devices.

The GAA was around before the advent of radio. People said then that fans would stop going to games.

It was around before the advent of TV.

It was around before the advent of pay TV and will be around through the next dozen iterations of how we consume sport and entertainment.

The new deal delivers in a number of key areas. Sky Sports’ promotional muscle alone will breathe life into the GAA’s expansion on the British stage. The broadcaster has made a massive commitment to Ireland through employing 1,000 people and developing Dublin as one of it’s four key hubs for initiatives such as the Sky Sports Living for Change programme. It deserves to be given an opportunity to expand the reach of the sport.

Making it available on free view channels and relying on word of mouth to promote it will deliver the squeak of a mouse to the roar of a lion that Sky can bring to our nearest neighbour’s sporting market, and at a time of year when competitive team sport is at a premium.

The Australian deal is a massive one for that market.

This is arguably the closest we have to a natural overseas hub for the development of football and hurling. Channel 7 is the top-rated channel and shows the Olympics, the Melbourne Cup and most of Australia’s and the world’s major sporting events. The deal with RTÉ Digital to develop new streaming channels for Europe, the US, Africa and Asia will open up many more avenues for both organisations and will keep the GAA to the fore in terms of how sports coverage is advancing on a technical level.

There is a resistance to change in all areas of life, and even when it is well intentioned, it does not mean that it is right or indeed logical.

Much has been made of how pay TV has ‘damaged’ Premier League soccer in England. Yet it is overlooked that when pay TV was mooted first, the sport was a battleground for hooligans.

Stadiums were out-dated and in many cases on the way to becoming derelict. The money from pay TV changed soccer but it never made it less a part of the national consciousness. The money from this deal for the GAA will not make a material difference in terms of contractual payments but by spreading to international markets it does bring fresh money into the Irish economy. That can only be seen as a positive.

It also broadens the appeal of the sport to commercial partners that look beyond our domestic market of four million consumers and see a genuine chance to engage with many times that number in Britain, Australia and the world. The new deal has certainly made the next renewal of a sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways closer to a done deal.

The GAA does not take a profit. Less than 20% of income goes towards running the organisation and over 80% is ploughed back to every level of the sport.

That goes to what will soon be 3,000 clubs across Ireland and around the world.

The only dividend taken is in a better and healthier society. Part of the deal with Sky is a commitment to creating subscription deals for clubs. This can be used as a means of sustaining or in some cases reviving the club as a centre of the community. This decision is a right one at the right time for the GAA. It is to be applauded as a brave decision which will upset some but which will leave the association, its counties, teams and players stronger in three, six and 20 years’ time than would have been the case if the changing world of sports broadcasting had not been recognised.

- Rob Hartnett is the founder of Sport for Business, a membership organization at the heart of the commercial world of Irish sport. Read the latest sports business news on every day at 8am.

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