Tuesday, March 05, 2013

They Are Spartacus - Where to Now for Off the Ball?

The Off the Ball team seem to have had an “I am Spartacus” moment. Resignations are rare in Ireland, not least when it’s so very hard to get another job. Principles don’t pay the rent or put food on the table.

For a mass resignation like that of Eoin McDevitt, Ciarán Murphy, Ken Early, Simon Hick and Mark Horgan (MMEHH from here on in) to happen is either an inspirational show of solidarity, or else a mad moment of hubris that the people involved may live to bitterly regret.

The fans of Off the Ball, and they are legion, will hope it’s the former. Off the Ball was like no other sports show on radio. That said, the path ahead is difficult for MMEHH  - Ger Gilroy kept the show on the road last night and paid the missing members a lovely tribute. And then Gilroy did what a good pro does, and got on with business as usual. If they were listening, did a cool chill run through MMEHH’s bones as they realised just how easily business can go on as usual?

The big plus for MMEHH is that thing called chemistry. Nobody knows what creates it or destroys it. We only know it when it’s there.

Chemistry was present in spades on Off the Ball. The diverse mix of the MMEHH presenters complemented each other perfectly, for no reason other than the fact they just did. But once that spell is broken, neither all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men can ever put it back together again.

Just last week, the BBC arts show, The Review Show, was moved from BBC2 to BBC Four and will now broadcast monthly, instead of weekly. When it started twenty years ago The Review Show, then know as Late Review, was essential watching.  Panelist Tom Paulin represented the highbrows, Tony Parsons the low and Alison Pearson the reasonable middle. The debat was chaired by Mark Lawson, and it was perfect.

And then the team split up and it was never the same. The BBC moved different people in and out, but they could never bottle lightning again. Newstalk are currently emphasising the fact that Ger Gilroy is the man who invented the Off the Ball format in the first place, but everybody knows there’s a void there, and it’s a void that will be hard to fill.

For MMEHH, there is a question of where do they go from here. In Newstalk’s worst-case scenario, a deal has already been made with a competitor and there will now be a battle royal between the official and continuity Off the Balls. This will be about who gets the regular contributors – will they stay loyal to the brand or the boys?

Newstalk is not a station that makes money but it is powerful because of its ownership. If MMEHH thought that the contributors would prioritize personal over professional relationships, they could be in for something of a rude awakening.

There also the issue that media organisations tend to hire singly, rather than a group. If MMEHH hope to replicate the format intact on some other station, there is then the question of exactly which media organisation will sign up for that. Bear in mind it’ll be broadcasting against the Newstalk Off the Ball, which will sounds very, very familiar to MMEHH version. A Continuity Off the Ball will require listeners tracking them down by moving the dial, something that Irish radio listeners are surprisingly reluctant to do.

There is also the fact that there aren’t many stations that could broadcast the show. Newstalk, Today FM and Dublin 98 are all owned by the same entity. Will this resignation be held against MMEHH by Newstalk’s sister companies?

What about RTÉ? Tweeters are clamouring for Off the Ball’s appearance on the national broadcaster but, amidst all this speculation, your correspondent will lay you Carnaby Street against a China lemon that there is no way on God’s green Earth that RTÉ sport will throw open their arms to welcome the smart arses who’ve been laughing at them for years. Life’s not like that.

There is also the question of what happens when individual approaches are made. Does a man hold out with his comrades or does he think he’d really like to pay the mortgage this month?

In a time of clouded media ethics we can only admire a resignation that’s been made on principle. But we also only have to look at how effortlessly Savage Sunday replaced Sam Smyth’s show on Today FM to find out that Irish media is not a sentimental business.

We won’t know until we hear their side of the story, but MMEHH’s own personal situation is precarious in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately industry. Off the Ball as we knew it could never have gone on forever but nobody could have expected its end to be so sudden. The best of luck to Eoin, Ciarán, Ken, Simon and Mark in their future careers. They made housework painless for a generation of men, and there are very few things that can achieve that miracle.