Monday, February 01, 2016

Sky Sports and the GAA

Professor Paul Rouse delivered another scathing polemic against the GAA’s current deal to broadcast games on Sky Sports in the Examiner a week or two ago. One of the points that Rouse makes in his piece is that the Association has failed to explain why the GAA did a deal with Sky having maintained for years that it would not. But it is that much of a mystery, really?

The GAA made a deal with Sky Sports for the same reason that 99% of things happen in the world: money. The GAA wanted the money, Sky were willing to stump up. That’s why it happened.

Some of the objections to the Sky deal are centered on the idea that, by dealing with Sky, the great Irish nation is denied its birthright, the watching of Gaelic Games on television for free. But that birthright isn’t quite as clear-cut as may seem.

There was a time when only All-Ireland semi-finals and finals were shown live on TV. You got an hour’s highlights of that day’s games on the Sunday game for the rest of the Championship and that was your lot. As for the League, forget about it. So the notion of the watching of live Gaelic games on TV being part of what we are is a recent development in the long history of the Gael.

There is also the fact that games on terrestrial TV are not free. They are paid for by triptych of license fee, advertising and taxation. That’s not free. And that’s another significant question that the GAA has to wrestle with.

If the GAA cedes the point that watching Gaelic Games live on television is a birthright of the Gael,that limits the parties with whom the Association can do business in terms of selling the rights to those games. A discussion of business environment in which the Association has to deal was noticeably absent from Professor Rouse’s discussion in the Examiner.

As is, there are three terrestrial entities with whom the Association can deal. There is TG4, the best cultural fit, and the channel that were more than happy to broadcast league games, club games and ladies’ games when neither RTÉ nor TV3 would touch them without climbing into the hazmat suit first. Unfortunately, TG4 has no money relative to the other two and are therefore out of the reckoning. A pity, but a lot of things are a pity in this misfortunate world.

The demise of TV3’s coverage is the elephant in the room in all discussions of the GAA’s deal with Sky. TV3 were the first holders of Sky’s current games package, but that deal was not renewed. Why?

TV3 was (relatively) innovative in its coverage. Matt Cooper wasn’t the most thrilling of hosts but Peter Canavan and Darragh Ó Sé were able to give insights into modern football that are beyond some of RTÉ’s current analysts. Insights that were so good that Sky signed that duo up straight away.

So why didn’t the GAA renew their deal with TV3? Nobody’s ever said, but it’s reasonable to guess that they weren’t offered enough money. And that then presented the GAA with a problem.

If TV3 weren’t going to stump up then the GAA had no option but to take what RTÉ were willing to give them. And that severely limits the GAA’s options, not just in terms of money but also in terms of how they want the games to be presented.

There is a strange inclination in the Irish to settle for a fair amount of old rope from the national broadcaster. While the hurling panel can be good, RTÉ prefers to run a Punch-and-Judy show during football matches instead of the sort of half-time analysis that the people want, if not need. But if RTÉ has no competitor, there’s no way that’s going to change.

RTÉ’s coverage of Gaelic Games is lazy in the extreme. Its highlights show during the League is an edited version of the game that was live on TG4 earlier. Its innovative Sunday radio show, presented by Eoin McDevitt and Ciarán Murphy, got the chop after one summer to be replaced by some zombie horror featuring Marty Morrissey and Brenda Donaghue.

Newstalk came up with the biggest innovation in GAA broadcasting when they started doing live games with having two colour commentators, rather than one. It’s been a revelation to hear the likes of James Horan and Darragh Ó Sé discussing a game, an experience that takes adults back to their childhoods listening to adults in the car breaking down a game afterwards. RTÉ persist with Brian Carthy and Tommy “Tom” Carr. What can you say?

If the GAA do not deal with Sky than RTÉ know they have the Association over a barrel. The GAA can’t let that happen. This is a new multi-media age, and the GAA has to keep up and keep thinking outside the box. To never look past RTÉ is to become as stagnant as RTÉ themselves. With so many other obstacles existing in providing the sort of coverage the games deserve, ignoring Sky on a mistaken point of principle would be an extremely short-sighted and naïve decision.