John Fogarty speaks to former RTÉ head of sport and managing director Glen Killane about the future of Gaelic games broadcasting.
The broadcasting of GAA matches is an increasingly fraught topic. Which matches should be shown on TV? On what channel? Should supporters have to pay to view? Maybe the big box in the corner should be bypassed altogether, and all the matches streamed online, but if they are, who foots the bill?
With hurling dominating the early summer television landscape, there is concern too that football is being marginalised. And there is fear that unfashionable counties aren’t getting their fair share of exposure — an argument that feeds into resistance to a two-tier championship structure, with some counties suspecting they’d never be seen on television again.
Last month, GAA president John Horan caused some upset in RTÉ when, at the launch of the Joe McDonagh Cup, he told county representatives and others in attendance that Montrose “are driven by nothing other than numbers on the actual television screen”. He promised the GAA would be “looking for greater coverage for your [McDonagh Cup] actual games and the only way we are going to get it is to tie [RTÉ] into a contract and not give them the flexibility of choice”.
Horan later clarified his comments to RTÉ who, it is understood, pointed out that it was in the GAA’s gift to award media rights. Today’s McDonagh Cup meeting of Offaly and Antrim will be streamed on GAAGo, the GAAGo partnership between the GAA and RTÉ. That is the type of relationship former RTÉ head of sport Glen Killane sees developing more in future, as sports organisations move to ensure more exposure.
Having spent almost 15 years in RTÉ — more than two as head of TV sport, almost four as group head of sport, and then RTÉ television managing director for six-and-a-half years — Killane is steeped in public service broadcasting.
However, following his departure from Montrose in October 2016, his 22 months as managing director of Eir Sport and Eir TV provided him with experience of the other side.
That preceded his move to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the alliance of public service media organisations, where he is coming up on a year as deputy director of sports. Based in Geneva from Monday to Friday, he is also travelling a lot in an area that spans Iceland to the Canaries to Russia. All the same, he manages to maintain his fix of Irish sport in his time spent at home at the weekends.
The Munster SHC captivates him. That football isn’t getting much of a look-in in terms of live coverage right now — there is no live SFC game this weekend, for example — brings him back to his days as RTÉ’s head of sport and the trickiness of choosing games.
“It was always a delicate balance to strike between hurling and football and what counties were shown and what counties got prominence. You’re never going to get it right. You pick two counties over another two and the people whose counties aren’t being shown will always be unhappy with it.
“The view that I anticipate RTÉ would take with the GAA is to consider the championship season approach to it rather than any one week at a time. Over the course of the championship, it will balance itself out over a season and that’s your narrative around it.
“I’m not privy to the situation but you can’t look beyond the Munster Championship at the moment, because there is some great stuff happening.
From RTÉ’s and the GAA’s perspective, it makes super viewing and there is great engagement with it. It’s a unique, fabulous competition.
Killane’s point is well made; RTÉ are confirmed to show 15 Liam MacCarthy Cup games this summer and will have shown seven by tomorrow evening. Their first of 13 live Sam Maguire Cup matches takes place next
weekend, when Donegal face Tyrone in an Ulster semi-final. They will wait to decide between showing an All-Ireland hurling quarter-final or a Super 8 game on July 14. Sky Sports’ broadcasting breakdown of the championship favours football, with 15 fixtures and seven hurling matches.
Killane was RTÉ TV managing director when Sky Sports entered the GAA market in 2014. He understands where Croke Park were coming from in awarding them a slice of their championship media rights.
“I’m not sure what happened between the GAA and TV3. Sky stepped in and, from the GAA perspective, it’s always good to have some competition in the market and, from RTÉ’s perspective, they needed to retain the principal rights of the championship.
“I think it was a reasonable, sensible solution from both parties, although I think the league is becoming increasingly important and you can see RTÉ getting back in there with some licensing from Eir.
“RTÉ would probably like the whole lot but, given their financial situation, I don’t know if they could afford it and that’s being open and honest about it. The GAA have to keep the coffers tipping over and they’ve got a lot of outgoings and commitments to the clubs etc to fund. It’s a very difficult one and there aren’t a huge amount of options.
“I think the GAA are on record as saying free-to-air is the only game in town. They have to remain free-to-air and they are committed to that, so in that instance the majority of their rights can only go in two directions: RTÉ or Virgin Media.
“The only other option they might consider is a direct OTT (over-the-top streaming) play themselves, where they make matches available themselves, but then the business model is another matter. Is it an advertiser-funded business model, sponsorship model, a pay model? I think it would be difficult for them to make it a pay model, because it would raise a lot of questions for them.”
As well as the ideological questions, there would be the task of getting people to pay.
“The vast majority of sports globally are looking at OTT, direct-to-the-consumer opportunities, but I think it works very well with the free-to-air option as well for critical gains. I’ve seen OTT apps really struggle when they’re asking for payment. If it’s free to the end user and there is exposure for it, then there is a fighting chance, but you also need good marketing power behind it.
“A partnership with free-to-air is the way to do that. You say: ‘Right, we have the key game or the key event of the week or the month on free-to-air and they can also promote the B and C level events that are covered on an OTT, direct-consumer play and that could be a joint venture.”