From the rise of Setanta to the end of Eir — a remarkable Irish TV odyssey

In the early days of around 1999, there were seven or eight employees in their one Dublin office. By 2007, there were offices in London, Dublin, and Glasgow, all packed with employees. Then came the hangover.
From the rise of Setanta to the end of Eir — a remarkable Irish TV odyssey

THE BIG SCREENS: Presenter Shane Dawson and Chloe Mustaki of Charlton and Republic of Ireland are seen on screens during the 2020 Women's National League Awards at the eir Sport Studios in Dublin. Picutre: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On Saturday, June 12, Eir Sport will air its very last outside broadcast, almost certainly the Allianz Hurling League meeting of Clare and Kilkenny in Cusack Park, Ennis.

The week after, June 19, it will be broadcasting the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup final from Treviso, the home of Benetton Rugby. But there will be no staff on site. Instead, whoever is on duty will be doing it from the studio back home. And after that, they will cease to exist.

It will bring a close to a broadcasting legacy that stretches all the way back to the madness of Italia ’90 and an idea born out of an excuse for a party. Such is the origin story of the company Eir bought over in December 2015: Setanta.

It was Mickey O’Rourke and his friend Leonard Ryan that decided to organise a showing of the Ireland-England Group F World Cup game in Cagliari in a London pub for their wider social circle.

For the last group game, O’Rourke and Ryan learned that the BBC was going to screen England’s fixture with Egypt, but there was no platform for Ireland’s tussle with the Netherlands.

With considerable chutzpah they put a call through to Fifa. Yeah, Fifa!

And then to the BBC.

Their question was ‘how do we get television rights?’ The answer was fairly predictable; give us some money.

No bother. They handed over the princely sum of £2,000.

They rented out the Top Hat Club on Northfield Avenue in Ealing and around 1,000 fans stumped up £10 at the door to see Niall Quinn cancel out Ruud Gullit’s opening goal and extend the national holiday for Ireland.

The seed was planted and the idea would flourish; Irish people would pay to see Irish sport. And it was an idea drifting in the winds, waiting to be grabbed by a crafty exile.

Go back a decade hence and you had the bombastic figure of Galway man Ambrose Gordon.

He would fly home at weekends from the early ‘80s and stay at The Sunnybank Hotel for the big games in Croke Park. He roped in a local, “A lovely lady called Kathy,” he said, who would record The Sunday Game for him on a VCR.

From there, he flew back on the first available Monday morning flight and went straight to his pub, The Half Moon on the Holloway Road. There, he had 20 VCR recorders rented out, all stacked on top of each other, recording off the master tape.

These were then distributed to all the major Irish pubs around London at a cost of £20 a pop, with a fiver for the motorbike courier. The first week he made and sold 85 tapes and demand kept growing.

Soon, pubs wanted the tapes by Monday lunchtime for the hedonists reluctant to loosen their grip on the weekend. So the price went to £40 per tape. It took RTÉ six years to cotton on and by 1989 he was in Holborn Court at their command. Still, ‘twas worth it.

The following year, O’Rourke and Ryan had the legals sorted but the spirit was the same. For Irish men and women spreading their wings in the half-light of young adulthood, there was something magical about that link back to the sentimental sod when the Setanta jingle would strike up on a big screen while you made light of the Guinness stain on your good shirt.

A few personal reminisces, if you allow. There was that baking morning on June 16, 2002 when myself and my housemates in north London emerged blinking from the Ireland-Spain World Cup game in Suwon, watched in The Inn on the Green, and continued on in the next Palmer’s Green pitstop, The Wishing Well, for the more earthy stuff of a Donegal-Derry slogfest broadcast from rainy Clones.

Or a few years later in Melbourne, having declared myself entirely unimpressed with Michael Schumacher’s victory in the Grand Prix and a day where time stands still in a fog of pints before the late broadcast of a Celtic/Rangers tussle broadcast on Setanta at the Crown Casino.

Or falling into the big screen in between the All-Ireland quarter-finals of 2004, necessitating a delay to the screening of Tyrone-Mayo. You can imagine how well the supporters took it.

Long way from home, still humming along with the catchy Setanta jingles.

They made inroads through GAA rights, beaming into 1,500 pubs across the UK. Soon they branched into showing English and Scottish soccer in Ireland and across the world. Rod Stewart in Los Angeles was an early customer to watch his beloved Celtic.

The dial shifted significantly in 2004 when they acquired rights to show English soccer in the UK, and two years on from that, they forked out £392m for a rights package for 46 Premier League matches, the capital coming from heavyweight financial investors such as Goldman Sachs and Doughty Hanson.

Long before the phrase was coined, they were ‘disruptors’ of a brilliant kind. They formed a production company that produced the highly-rated and much missed ‘Breaking Ball’ magazine show on Gaelic Games.

Forget about slow, sustainable growth. This was almost rock ‘n’ roll as they didn’t so much grow tall, but sprout out in all directions.

In 2004, RTÉ Head of Sport Niall Cogley — son of the former rugby commentator Fred — came on board and they moved through the gears.

They grabbed a slice of the Celtic League.

O’Rourke was a huge soccer fan having played with UCD and they screened League of Ireland games. Given the average attendance in the top tier normally floats around just over 2,000, it wasn’t anything but an act of philanthropy.

There wasn’t anything they wouldn’t consider and take on; schools rugby, European football, Formula One, and so on.

But their ‘baby’ was The Setanta Cup. O’Rourke’s background pulled him that direction and it was a fairly audacious move to have soccer teams from north and south playing each other.

For the first year of 2005, they put up €350,000 prize money and sponsorship of €1.6m over four years.

But what do they say about lipstick on a pig? Some of the games became marred with sectarian violence with clashes inside and out of the stadiums and while it ran until 2014, it hardly caught the public imagination.

In November 2007, they launched a rolling 24-hour sports news channel. There were pre-Harvey Weinstein advertisements with hapless and gormless men being drip-fed details of how to subscribe by Des Lynam and the actress Thalia Zucchi, the visual ‘joke’ centering on Zucchi’s chest for the ‘Lads, Lads, Lads,’ culture of footie, beers, and birds, innit?

In the early days of around 1999, there were seven or eight employees in their one Dublin office. By 2007, there were offices in London, Dublin, and Glasgow, all packed with employees.

Then came the hangover.

In 2009, they defaulted on the balance of a £30m payment to the Premier League, which instantly terminated their contract. A £50m tax bill had been hovering in the background for the company. At the time, they had 1.2m subscribers but industry experts put the breakeven figure at 1.9m subscribers for the business model.

One former worker said, “Prior to them going bust, I would say the company would have been valued at between €800m and €1bn.

“I know that Disney were circling to purchase at the time. They didn’t in the end. What they did was they waited for them to go bust and then they came in with ESPN and hoovered up all the rights to sports.

But they were very close to being a billion-euro company. It was only a matter of weeks between that, and the thing going wallop.

That was an international company however.

Setanta Ireland would keep trading, downsizing and operating in a market they had far more control over and familiarity with.

In any event, the culture of the company was still down-home, with former employees confiding this week that Mickey O’Rourke himself would be flipping and serving pancakes himself for his workers on Shrove Tuesday.

Michael O'Rourke, joint founder and former joint Chief Executive of Setanta Sports. Picture: Brendan Moran
Michael O'Rourke, joint founder and former joint Chief Executive of Setanta Sports. Picture: Brendan Moran

“It was about good morale, good camaraderie, and being good to their staff,” they said.

“And I would say it would really have hurt them, what happened. Because they genuinely tried to create a family atmosphere there.

“They knew their staff worked hard for them and they rewarded them for it. In terms of largesse, there wasn’t a culture like that. They weren’t over-spending, we were very well budgeted.”

How they made it work, for so long, was the genius. For example, wresting some rights from the GAA was an incredible coup.

Forever and a day, RTÉ and the GAA had needed each other, though neither were willing to say that out loud. RTÉ’s budget was always finite and squeezing them for a few dollars more in negotiations could never be about pounds, shilling and pence. There was the promotional aspect of it.

There is a rough formula to buying rights. Let us lay it out here.

If RTÉ was offering €3m for rights, then it had to be worth the GAA’s while to hand some over to a satellite broadcaster.

If Setanta came in with an offer of €5m, and then needed an extra €2m to produce a suite of live games, then they would do their sums and ask if they could get 100,000 people paying £100 for an annual subscription, leaving €3m profit left over.

But still, the games are only watched in 100,000 homes instead of 1.5m homes. And this creates a problem that the Sky TV deal has never quite shaken off, especially in the era of GAAGO, the online service run in partnership between the GAA and RTÉ.

What made Sky work was the scale of the money and demand for the product. For the first season of the Premier League, they paid £304m for rights to 60 live games.

Rupert Murdoch’s vision was that he could persuade 10m or 12m homes across Britain and Ireland to attach a satellite dish to their gable walls.

It was risky, but it paid off, chiefly because they were the only show in town.

The commercial field became much more complicated by the time Eir bought over Setanta Ireland in 2015, rebranding as Eir Sport in July 2016.

It’s a small pool, which is why despite the numerous interviews conducted in researching the piece, all were understandably reluctant to be named, given that this feels ever more like a gig economy and all could be on the move soon to the next broadcaster.

Eir became innovators in their own right.

While TG4 had long been screening club championship matches through the winter months on Sundays, Eir struck a five-year deal to screen 30 additional games from May 2017.

That same year, while in the throes of negotiations, they also hit upon a neat sideline. Eir would secure the rights to the GAA’s archives. And nobody might have noticed until the coronavirus pandemic struck and suddenly the networks were looking at nothing but empty spaces where all that glorious sport previously occupied.

                        SIDELINE VIEW: Eir Sport pundits Donncha O'Callaghan, Martyn Williams and Liam Toland prior to the Guinness PRO14 match between Munster and Cardiff Blues. Picture: Diarmuid Greene
SIDELINE VIEW: Eir Sport pundits Donncha O'Callaghan, Martyn Williams and Liam Toland prior to the Guinness PRO14 match between Munster and Cardiff Blues. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

For a short while, it was an accidental miracle. RTÉ was able to broadcast nothing prior to the 2018 season, while Eir could allow viewers to bathe in the nostalgia of it all, all recorded on RTÉ cameras and with their commentary feed for an extra rub of salt in the wound.

But then reality bit — with clubs and pubs closed, there was no bounceback for Eir, no real reprieve. Contracts were cancelled with their financial backbone, pubs.

Plus, there was a fatigue setting in with the range of sport available.

One industry insider says, “About three years ago, the public got to the point where they were just so addled with the amount of offerings that they had — maybe 10 different businesses, all offering you different bits of the same sport. How many did you have to subscribe to just to see your favourite team?

“That’s consolidated now a bit, but I’d say Eir said it is just too fragmented. You need to be very big, or clever to survive. When you are playing against Sky, you know you are not going to win.

The question is, will Sky not let somebody lose? That has as much to do with where we are headed now as anything else.

Where we are heading is the philosophical question all broadcasters are asking themselves.

“The biggest difference now from the past is streaming,” says a broadcasting executive.

“Now you have streaming broadcasters and you can see the success of GAAGo at the moment. There has been another disruption in the technology.

“Setanta grew out of the last disruptive element, which was satellite broadcasting. And then the next disruptive element is streaming.”

Streaming cuts everything back to the root. A side effect of the pandemic is that coverage of club championships arranged by county boards was in the works, but the process was accelerated, improved, and refined.

TyroneGAA TV, for example, had a couple of early outings that caused problems with poor internet connection. They immediately turned to Nemeton to travel from Waterford and look after the broadcast of their fixtures with a range of knowledgeable commentators such as former BBCNI man Ger Treacy, alongside household names like Peter Canavan on co-commentary.

Even club league games now are shown on YouTube channels and the general public are happy to watch something with a low-fidelity production.

For a typical Eir broadcast, you could have a commentator and someone riding shotgun. Two pundits on the pitch with a sideline reporter, a director, a producer, half a dozen people in the truck and five people on the cameras. It comes in around 20 people, all on the payroll.

Compare that to GAAGO. By and large, there is one camera and a commentator. A technical person and a sound operator. There is no pre-match or half-time analysis, but a solid picture instead. Post-match interviews are done by the commentator for the benefit of League Sunday.

“People are happy with that. One camera is fine. You are paying a fiver, so replays, fine, not pushed on them. I can go back over my package and watch the goals back,” said another, currently working in GAA broadcasting.

You have the €25 season ticket offer which is an unbelievable offer. It gets you access to GAAGO for everything. You could sit down this weekend and watch every single match that GAA are showing.

“You can also watch the same next weekend, the weekend after that. It’s unbelievable value, the only ones you cannot watch are those shown by RTÉ and TG4, they are blocked by the broadcast agreement.”

Added to that, people are consuming sport differently now. Eir broadcast the Kerry-Galway league game. The figures might have been fine, but they are nothing to the 209,600 and counting views that the clip of David Clifford scoring that goal has on the GAA’s Twitter handle.

So where do all the Eir Sport games go now?

It might suit Sky, if they wish to build it into their Championship coverage and really commit to whatever their long-term vision for Gaelic Games is.

Looking towards the next round of scheduled negotiations in 2022, the GAA commercial director Peter McKenna suggested back in February that Amazon Prime Video could be consulted.

Or, there is another player in the market. A lot of the staff who are now working in Premier Sports worked in Setanta Sports in previous times. They know how to put it together and the value of GAA broadcasting.

And, the owner of Premier Sports is none other than Mickey O’Rourke.

It would be quite the full circle, 31 years on from that stunt in the Top Hat in Ealing.

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