Rise of pay TV will show money GAA’s future priority

Here’s the future: The GAA will put more of its highest-profile inter-county championship matches behind a paywall this summer.

Rise of pay TV will show money GAA’s future priority

The official announcement has yet to be made, but additional games in the football Super 8s and in the hurling provincial championships will be awarded exclusively to Sky Sports.

These matches will displace qualifier matches from early in the season — the type of match that some people used to dismiss as ones that nobody would have any interest in showing.

It means that when Cork play Tipperary or Waterford or Clare in the Munster hurling championship this year, there’s every chance the game will be exclusively live on Sky Sports.

It means, also, that six of the 12 matches in the football ‘Super 8s’ will be on Sky Sports. That is a dramatic increase in what promise to be high-profile matches.

It will be interesting to watch the reaction of GAA members when this happens.

The increase in the number of high-profile games to be given to Sky Sports is entirely predictable. It is precisely what opponents of the Sky deal repeatedly said would happen in the four years since the GAA sold championship matches to Sky Sports in the middle of the most brutal recession in recent Irish history.

There is no need to reheat here the indigestible soup of alternative facts, dissembling and denials of reality that was presented by the GAA hierarchy when it unveiled this deal.

It is enough to say that it was an attempt at spin that was undone by basic facts and by inconvenient truths.

What matters now, however, is the absolute clarity with which the impact of that decision has revealed itself.

During the course of the deal, the average number of people who watched GAA matches on Sky Sports was less than one-10th of those who previously watched games on TV3 (who Sky Sports displaced).

And so it is that an organisation that presents itself as community-based and open to all effectively (and knowingly) cut out huge swathes of the volunteers who are supposedly so valued by the Association.

The decision to extend the Sky deal by a further five years last spring was intended to ‘normalise’ the idea that Gaelic football and hurling should be sold to pay-TV sports channels.

It hasn’t worked.

The ‘Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air’ campaign that was visible throughout last year’s championship and the ongoing online petition on www.uplift.ie are just two manifestations of the evidence of enduring discontent.

And this discontent cannot just be wished away — it would not last this long if it did not have meaning.

From the beginning, the GAA hierarchy has affected the notion that all opposition to the deal was minimal, the work of a small minority, or something that largely resides outside the ranks of the membership.

Indeed, the opposition has previously been described by Director-General Páraic Duffy as “whining and moaning”, while current GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail claimed not to “know exactly the reasons” for the feelings of those who were opposed to the deal with Sky Sports.

Director-General Páraic Duffy and JD Buckley MD of Sky Ireland
Director-General Páraic Duffy and JD Buckley MD of Sky Ireland

It is legitimate to expect better from people who run an organisation that is supposed to be democratic and egalitarian.

When clubs within the Association ranging from rural Ireland to inner-city Dublin pass motions in opposition to the Sky deal it should not simply be treated as a minor irritant.

And when motions from such clubs are passed unanimously at county conventions, surely that too merits more than a “nothing to see here”-style waving of the hand?

The news this week that the GAA’s hierarchy have ruled out-of-order three motions put forward by counties in the west of Ireland calling for an end to the GAA’s sale of exclusive rights to its matches to pay-TV companies comes as no surprise.

The motions from Clare, Leitrim, and Roscommon — effectively calling on the GAA not to sign such deals in the future — have been kept off the clár on the grounds that they mirror a similar motion from Dublin County Board that failed last year.

The Roscommon motion, for example, came from the club in Boyle and proposed that the GAA “does not renew nor enter contracts with television companies that require pay per view for coverage of our national games after the current contract expires”.

The delegates at the Roscommon County Board annual convention unanimously backed Boyle’s proposal.

Why does the GAA hierarchy think that such grassroots opposition remains so strong?

How does it explain away the inconvenient truth that four years has brought no dilution of sentiment in this area?

Put simply: the normalisation has not happened and it is hard to see how it can happen.

Despite this, every year now sees an increase in the number of GAA games on Pay-TV.

It is absolutely the case that there is a debate to be had about how, and whether, to broadcast those games that would never be shown by free-to-air channels.

For example, there are currently club and league matches being broadcast on eir Sport whose showing would not happen otherwise.

That the viewing figures for these matches are even lower than they are for the matches shown by Sky Sports does not change the fact that there should be a debate about how such broadcasts fit into the GAA’s media ambitions.

Is a free-to-air broadcaster either willing or able to show league matches on Saturday nights?

It is very difficult to believe that no free-to-air broadcaster has expressed an interest in showing these games in the past.

It is equally difficult to believe that they would not wish to do so in the immediate future. Is it, then, merely a question of money?

Just four years ago Páraic Duffy was speculating that there were too many games being shown live on television.

Aogan O’Fearghail and ParaicDuffy
Aogan O’Fearghail and ParaicDuffy

But every year since then has seen the number of games grow year after year and the number stood at more than 160 in 2017.

That number will grow in 2018 and the bulk of the growth will be on Pay-TV channels.

Is this what the membership of the GAA wants to happen? And is it part of a plan? Or is it merely scattergun development, the broadcasting equivalent of urban sprawl? And how prepared is the GAA for the way the media rights market is evolving?

The launch last week of the GAA’s annual financial report demonstrated the extent to which the Association is awash with money. The sale of TV rights is an essential part of this business.

But selling games to pay-TV channels to make more money is not the same as putting on additional concerts at Croke Park to squeeze a few more euro into the coffers.

It is something of cultural importance that is of direct relevance to the image of the Association and how it presents itself.

To imagine that putting games on Sky Sports has no impact on matters such as volunteerism and amateurism is not sustainable. How can you lament the decline in amateurism and at the same time adopt all the trappings of professionalism?

Why is this not debated?

Or is it that the GAA hierarchy are actually entirely correct to attempt to avoid all debate? Their incapacity

to defend their decisions on the Sky deal is well-established.

The manner in which Joe Molloy dismantled the arguments of Páraic Duffy in a lengthy interview on Off the Ball on Newstalk is the most striking recent example.

But there are many others. It comes from placing yourself in a position where there is a tension between what you do and what you say.

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