You won’t have many in Donegal arguing Declan Bonner should be talking about things other than Sky Sports this week.
His comments would have found favour with the clubs of the county, who three years ago mandated their delegates to be among the 15.3% at Congress that backed a Dublin motion to make all televised inter-county championship games free-to-air.
As chairman of his club Na Rossa, he has more of an appreciation than most of the difficulties club members have in accessing games that are pay-per-view — this is Donegal’s second Super 8 game on Sky Sports. But in his extended duties as county manager, he also has an understanding of people’s opinions about such matters.
“A match of that magnitude, you’d want to see on RTÉ, there’s no doubt about that,” he said at Donegal’s press briefing in Letterkenny on Monday. “I’ve been visiting people in nursing homes and hospitals over the last couple of weeks and they don’t have it on Sky. They’d like to see the game, but they don’t have the option.”
As the GAA dug in against the widespread opposition of their deal with Sky Sports in 2014, there were suggestions of making games available or at least discounts in subscriptions provided to communities. The NowTV pay-as-you-go service would seem an ideal opportunity for Sky to afford elderly people the opportunity to take in matches.
Sky has also weighed in behind a lot of GAA initiatives such as Super Games Centres, other grassroot projects and sponsoring the annual coaching conference. But the very principle of having to pay to watch one’s county continues to hammer at the heart of what the organisation is supposed to mean.
Few now buy the argument, as was made by the GAA in 2014, that the deal was done to promote Gaelic games across the Irish Sea. Throughout the summer, BBC Northern Ireland producer and Tyrone supporter Darran Marshall has been providing details of some of the penetration of Gaelic games, or lack thereof, on Sky Sports in the UK.
The average audience for the Cavan-Monaghan Ulster preliminary round game was 2,000, peaking at 5,000. For the Tyrone-Cavan provincial quarter-final, the UK audience was 7,000 (0.06% market share), while it was 6,000 for the All-Ireland qualifier between Mayo and Galway (0.04% share). Sky’s exclusive coverage of the Donegal-Meath Super 8 game in Ballybofey had an average audience of 1,000, peaking at 2,000, although that was heavily impacted by the final of a dramatic Cricket World Cup final in which England were involved, as well as an epic men’s final in Wimbledon.
All those numbers exclude those who watched the on demand service or in pubs but not only do they give a strong indication of the games lacking appeal behind the paywall in the UK but are consistent with the five previous seasons of data provided by the likes of Irish Examiner columnist and sports historian Paul Rouse.
Sky’s productive values were also heralded by the GAA in 2014 and it has been regularly pointed out by Croke Park figures that Sky have made RTÉ up their game but their presence did as much to up their media rights bids as anything else. Former GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s point that the GAA had to do something for the hundreds of thousands of young people that left during the recession didn’t necessarily need Sky. It is with RTÉ that the GAA established the GAAGo internet portal TV service.
What exacerbates the televising of such a vital games on a pay-per-view channel is Elverys MacHale Park’s reduced capacity of 27,000, over 4,000 less than its original, as a result of there being no curtain-raiser and health and safety measures.
Not everybody who wants to be there is going to be there.
Remember that photograph of the people watching the Mayo-Donegal All-Ireland quarter-final in through the windows of a front room in a house in Balla four years ago because it was the only one in the parish that had Sky Sports? Well, there could be repeat scenes in what is a de facto knockout quarter-final only closer to home on Saturday. Pay-per-view TV motions will likely only be considered close to when the current media deals end until 2022. Whether Dublin have the appetite to put forward another motion remains to be seen but it’s not being forgotten in the likes of Clare,, Kerry, Leitrim, Roscommon or, as Bonner has highlighted, Donegal. Not for the first time, he has his finger on the pulse.