THIS year's Saipan ... debate around the GAA's Sky Sports deal continues to rage. We on the Irish Post sports desk are, of course, eager to see the Association thrive in Britain. This broadcasting deal has been sold as something which will allow that to happen. However, we are yet to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs and have done some thinking aloud ...
Fear of change
It’s unfair to label those opposed to the deal as being resistant to change. Surely every incidence of change should be debated on whether this is change for the better or for the worse.
We thought Rule 42's abolition was change for the better. We weren’t around for the Rule 27 debate, but are pretty certain we would have regarded that as change for the better too. We’re not so sure this is change for the better for the following reasons.
Follow the money
Gaelic games were available without additional charge to licence payers in Ireland, now people at home have to pay more. In Britain, you could watch the championship for a tenner a month on Premier Sports.
Now, if you’re not currently a Sky subscriber, you will need to pay north of £40 a month to follow the championship on Premier Sports and Sky Sports. 400% price rises are not something you'd normally celebrate.
‘The diaspora abroad’
You get nowt for nothing in life, unless you live in Australia. Much was made by GAA director general Paraic Duffy on Prime Time about the importance of the diaspora. He said a small reduction in the amount of live games shown on terrestrial TV at home was a small price to be paid to enable the “huge diaspora abroad” to be able to tune in.
Sounds reasonable, but having 45 games on Channel 7 free in Australia while viewers in Britain have to pay £40 a month does not seem fair. This paper asked the GAA why a similar deal for Britain could not be struck and they told us that no free channel had the capacity to screen 14 games.
The world wide web
Games will be broadcast around the world on RTE digital for a fee. This is to be welcomed. Anybody who has ever pressed refresh on a minute-by-minute blog in some far distant land will grab the chance to pay for a legal web stream. However, if you're trying to spread the games as far and wide as possible – as is the stated aim – then why not make this a free service?
Sky’s promotional expertise
This has been presented as a major reason to get excited about the partnership. Certainly, Sky can market the events they screen. Does it culminate in extra viewers? As Paul Rouse illustrated, the numbers who tune in to a sports event on pay-per-view TV are way down on a terrestrial channel. 255,000 saw Leinster’s Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006. The next year, 47,000 watched their quarter final on Sky Sports.
Paraic Duffy’s dismissal of this evidence on Prime Time – it wasn’t like-for-like he said because no Heineken Cup matches were on free TV but 31 GAA championship matches will be – was unfair. Televised sports are close relations of each other in that when they are free a lot more people will watch as opposed to when they are behind a paywall. This is basic common sense.
Speaking of RTÉ’s current affairs programme, Liam O’Neill’s reaction to their probing questioning of Duffy was telling.
He said: “Quite frankly, in relation to last night, we are shocked by the treatment we got from RTÉ. Every single one of the interviews was aggressive.”
Surely he knows that a current affairs programme has to crank it up and play devil’s advocate. That is not displaying a bias, it’s doing your job as a journalist.
We watched the show back again and are, to be honest, shocked that he is shocked. The questioning wasn’t harsh. There were no real curveballs. O’Neill’s shock, we feel, is more informed by his being accustomed to soft interviews – which is what he and GAA figures usually receive. On an issue like this the heat is likely to be turned up and that’s something you just have to tolerate. The late Chopper Read put it more succinctly: "You need to harden the f*** up."
How serious will Sky be about promoting GAA in Britain?
As reporters we are in Ruislip for club and county games year round. Many, many times, the attendance barely limps into three figures. Often, in quiet moments, we have counted more people on the pitch than on the bank – and that’s been for county games.
If Sky can conjure extra interest then that would be welcomed gladly. If we’re facing into a summer of GAA Super Sundays and people with no previous GAA background become fans then – for this paper – that represents bonanza time. Bring it on!
Call us sceptical though, but we are doubtful that there will be an increase of boots on the bank. Loads of minority sports fill out the schedule on Sky Sports channels – for Sky’s native viewers Gaelic games will have a lot more in common with Ice Hockey, Australian Rules Football and the World Pool Championships than they do with soccer.
People might flitter away a couple hours watching a match, they might even enjoy immensely, but in the great majority of cases that’s where it will end.
Will there be a big uptake?
Finally, we wonder is all of this a furore about not much, especially where Britain is concerned. Everybody knows that technology has, to a great extent, overtaken rights deals. Many GAA viewers here and further abroad are using proxy servers to watch games live on RTÉ Player.
Most pubs we go to don’t subscribe to Premier Sports, instead they have Irish Sky cards. Indeed, loads of households have Irish Sky cards and boxes flown over so ex-pats can enjoy GAA, soccer, Love/Hate and whatever else worth seeing is on Irish telly. Will all this change? Unlikely. As bright as Sky and the GAA brass are, they are unlikely to have found a means to police the internet. But one thing you can still do is make a lot of money as an internet service provider.
Sky, we feel, aren’t quite so moved by the prospect of turning Britain into the fifth province. The broadband bundle market is where the money is at nowadays. If Sky can offer packages of phone, web and TV channels that show the Premier League and exclusive GAA games then we know which supplier we’d choose were we taking out a subscription at home.
Multiply the number of households in Ireland by the average cost of these bundles a month and Sky’s interest in Gaelic Games makes a lot of sense. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – we live in a commercial world and everybody must turn a buck. Squaring the games’ amateur status with Rupert’s expanding empire, though, could prove challenging in seasons to come.
Are players going to be prepared to be unpaid customer recruiters for Sky while the money rolls in? It will be interesting to find out.