Dundalk's heroics in European competition this summer have shown that the national broadcaster has abdicated its responsibilities to the domestic league, writes Joe Leogue
Last week, history was made in domestic soccer when Dundalk became the first Irish club to make it to the Champions League play-offs, one round from the prestigious group stages.
But, to the general public, it would appear the achievements of the Louth club has gone over the heads of the national broadcaster.
Domestic soccer supporters, and the general public, hoping to sit down last Tuesday night and watch the game on RTÉ were more than disappointed.
Viewers were instead treated to a UK diet show and Runner Runner — a 2013 crime thriller starring Ben Affleck that was a box office flop and described as a “stodgy, by-numbers fare” by critics.
Two days later, a tabloid newspaper revealed RTÉ had turned its nose up at the measly €10,000 asked to secure the broadcasting rights for Dundalk’s game against BATE Borisov.
Later last week, Cork City bowed out of European competition following a 3-1 aggregate loss to Belgian side KRC Genk, a game also ignored by RTÉ.
After that tie, City manager John Caulfield spoke to the media about the many issues facing Irish football, and touched upon a hot topic among fans of the domestic game: television coverage.
This summer, four League of Ireland clubs — Dublin clubs St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers make up the numbers — have played 16 games between them in European competition against sides from Belarus, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, and Northern Ireland.
Not one of these games were broadcast on RTÉ and, in his post-match interview, Caulfield argued this lack of coverage was not acceptable.
The facts firmly support Caulfield’s concern, both in terms of coverage of Irish clubs’ European adventures and their domestic efforts.
As of last Friday night, clubs have played 122 League of Ireland matches over five months since the 2016 season started on March 4.
RTÉ has broadcast just four of the games live.
The last game broadcast live by RTÉ involving any Irish club was Dundalk’s 2-0 league win over Shamrock Rovers, which took place last April.
RTÉ will point to Soccer Republic, a weekly highlights show, as evidence that it promotes the League of Ireland.
But the programme goes out after 11pm on Mondays, hardly conducive to attracting floating viewers and an impossible hour for young fans to watch action involving their team.
It is unthinkable that programmes such as The Sunday Game or Against the Head would be broadcast in a graveyard slot or receive similar treatment.
The public broadcaster’s antipathy towards Irish football is further demonstrated by the fact that while it would not pay a paltry €10,000 to show a historic night for the domestic game, it once offered the FAI a seven-figure fee in attempt to get out of any obligation to promote the League of Ireland.
In 2014, FAI chief executive John Delaney revealed the association sold the rights to cover the international side as part of a bundle with League of Ireland coverage — a package RTÉ sought to buy its way out of.
“I remember them [RTÉ] offering €4m in negotiations not to cover the League of Ireland at a meeting and I said no, we want a highlights show every Monday night and we want live football,” Delaney told RTÉ’s Game On programme on 2FM.
“Soccer Republic has been a big advertisement [for the league], that is something we fought with RTÉ for and we got it.”
The obvious defence for RTÉ — that the League of Ireland does not generate enough interest to sustain a higher level of coverage — can be countered on two fronts.
Firstly, RTÉ is a public broadcaster in receipt of licence fee money from most households in the State, and this privilege carries responsibilities.
In its own Public Service Statement, RTÉ states that it “is required in law to be responsive to the interests and concerns of the whole community”, is responsible for “providing coverage of sporting, cultural, and religious activities”, and must provide “programming and services for majority and minority interests”.
Arguably that final caveat does not even apply in this instance — football is not a ‘minority interest’ in this country.
The Irish Sport Monitor, a regular report conducted for Sport Ireland has repeatedly found that more people participate in playing football than GAA or rugby in this country. Tens of thousands of Irish fans travelled to France this summer to support the national team. A third of the players in that squad got their start in the League of Ireland.
Football is a significant part of Irish sporting life, and the League of Ireland represents the pinnacle of the game in this country.
Secondly, if the ratings argument were to be applied evenly to what RTÉ covers, there are other sports that would fall victim to this condition.
For example, on March 18, Dundalk and Cork City — the top two teams in the country — played a league game in front of 3,528 fans at Oriel Park in Dundalk. Instead RTÉ broadcast a dead-rubber Ireland U20s rugby game, a match that drew an attendance of an even 2,500 to Donnybrook.
Evidently, ratings and interest didn’t seem to matter that night, and yet are a stick with which to batter those who suggest Irish football deserves greater coverage.
The chase for ratings is tied to commercial interests. Yet, while RTÉ decides against showing games involving Irish clubs, a subscription channel, funded entirely by commercials without the benefit of the licence fee, has filled the void left by the national broadcaster.
Remarkably, in the week up to and including Friday night, Eir Sports has broadcast as many live games involving Irish clubs in seven days as RTÉ has in five months.
The former Setanta Sports has broadcast 13 live games since the start of the season — more than three times as many as RTÉ — yet these are only available to subscribers, an ever decreasing number since Virgin Media cut Eir Sports from its television offering.
The domestic game has a myriad of problems, and there is no silver bullet to address these issues. Many in the game will make a strong case that the root of many of these difficulties lie at the door of the FAI. Yet the shortcomings of the FAI should not absolve another — namely RTÉ — of the criticism its apathy deserves.
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