Game up: Why RTÉ needs to pick a new squad
Bad luck, controversy and illness have conspired to call time on the station's tired sport panels. How can they be reinvented?
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
It is a statement every bit as pithy as one of Eamon Dunphy's celebrated put-downs: "The analysis tends to be very poor, the arguments contrived and the whole thing looks dated." Harry Browne, media studies lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, does not hold back when it comes to RTÉ's football coverage, or indeed its overall recent track record when it comes to sport. "It's striking how often senior panellists appear to have done little research, and it's remarkable that RTÉ stands for it.
"And when it comes to radio," Browne adds, "RTÉ sport has been really shown up - it's a staid, often parochial offering, that's stuck in the past. Listen to the sort of talk sports radio popularised by Newstalk, and RTÉ just seems very conservative and strait-laced by comparison."
It's a view largely shared by a prominent sports broadcaster who works for a commercial station. "The panel for football, in particular, has been looking very tired for quite a few years," he says. "Anyone looking for proper, considered analysis, is let down and there seems to be a determination for pundits to go down the confrontational route as much as possible.
"There seems to be this thinking in RTÉ that the debates before and after the match are every bit as important as the game itself, and there's almost this feeling that the analysts are deliberately looking to say things that will make headlines. Look at Joe Brolly [the GAA pundit, who controversially called Cavan's style of Gaelic football to be "as ugly as (RTÉ sports broadcaster) Marty Morrissey" - if you listen to some people, his comments were the most interesting thing about the Championship so far."
Although RTÉ can point to an impressive 50pc market share for last Saturday's crucial Euro football qualifier against Scotland, there was a staleness to the coverage that's become increasingly obvious when compared to the slick offering from Sky, for instance, and its revelatory signing, pundit Gary Neville.
Much of the talk before the Scotland match centred on the decision to drop veteran pundit John Giles from the RTÉ panel and Eamon Dunphy ensured he was in the news again having called for manager Martin O'Neill to be sacked if he failed to name Wes Hoolahan in the team.
This has been an unhappy time for RTÉ's sports department who are still reeling from last month's untimely death of Bill O'Herlihy, the veteran broadcaster who had recently retired after four decades' service. Then came the weekend's news that long-time GAA anchor Michael Lyster had suffered a massive heart-attack - the versatile Darragh Maloney had to be drafted in to replace him on Sunday Game Live, less than 24 hours after helming the football qualifier at the Aviva. Maloney will continue to present live GAA matches until Lyster is well enough to return.
Meanwhile, RTÉ will soon have to fill the shoes vacated by the veteran anchor of its rugby coverage, Tom McGurk, who retired after this year's Six Nations championship. RTÉ have already decided on his replacement - rumoured to be Joanne Cantwell - but the national broadcaster will have to play second fiddle to TV3 when it comes to rugby this September when rival station TV3, with anchors Matt Cooper and Sinéad Kissane, gets to host the World Cup for the first time. The Ballymount, Dublin broadcaster, which has had to compete with the threat of new arrival UTV Ireland, will broadcast all 48 games free-to-air. The loss of the most eagerly anticipated sports tournament of the year was a hard pill for Head of RTÉ Sport Ryle Nugent to swallow. RTÉ couldn't match the money put up by TV3, especially as Nugent is working with a budget that is 25pc down on the funds available five years ago.
"Of course, we would love to be showing the World Cup," he says, "but very careful decisions have to be made about how taxpayers' money is spent and we are operating in a market where rights to many sports events are awarded to the highest bidder and we just don't have the funds.
"Twelve or 14 years ago, it was very different and RTÉ would have been confident of being able to secure such rights. But there are new players on the market and dedicated sports channels with deep pockets, so it is far more difficult to acquire every event or tournament that we would like."
Nugent, who was a familiar face in Irish households thanks to his front-of-camera work, believes RTÉ is often not given enough credit for the coverage it provides. "People don't realise it, but The Sunday Game is a huge undertaking because it involves multiple matches, substantial editing work, and so on. If you look at Ireland's four most popular sports, football, rugby, Gaelic football and hurling, we endeavour to cover them as extensively as possible and then there are other sports that are very important to Irish people, such as horse racing, and we show 24 days of that."
Nugent says he is heartened by the strong performance of the Ireland-Scotland game in the ratings. He points to the fact that RTÉ broadcast the 20 most watched sports programmes in 2014, and of those, he says, 19 were available on rival stations. "It shows that if given the choice, people will choose to watch RTÉ's coverage, and much of that is down to the strong panels that we have assembled for each sport."
A broadcaster who didn't want to be named insists that RTÉ's football panel is most in need of surgery. "Eamon Dunphy is beyond parody at this stage and some of the younger ones are trying to be controversial for controversy's sake. Nobody I know who truly loves football pays heed to what they say. And then you've got someone like Richie Sadlier, who's well regarded by some, but has a very lightweight CV - he only has one international cap and that was for a friendly.
"When you consider the fact that there are several internationals out there who have played in World Cups, it's strange that RTÉ haven't tried to bolster the panel. What about people like Matt Holland and Phil Babb? I know not every international with numerous caps is articulate or good on television, but it feels as though RTÉ isn't trying hard enough."
Nugent takes umbrage at suggestions that Sadlier is somehow not deserving of his role as football pundit. "Richie's career was cut short by injury, so who knows what he could have achieved? He has had a very interesting life post-football, what with his study of psychology and his journalism, and I think he brings a very different perspective to the analysis." He says every effort is made to cultivate exciting new punditry talent, but concedes that RTÉ's chequebook diplomacy is in the ha'penny place considered to cross-channel broadcasters. "What is it that Sky are paying Thierry Henry? Something like £5m." By contrast, RTÉ's top paid pundit across all sporting codes, Eamon Dunphy, was getting €106,000 in 2013 - a 67pc cut on the previous year.
"As for the notion of being controversial for it's own sake," Nugent adds, "that's a nonsense. All the guys are opinionated and not afraid to say it as it is and that's why we employ them. Never once have I or any of the producers asked them to be deliberately provocative. Their opinions are their own - there's certainly no directive to be controversial."
He says he took no pleasure in the acres of newsprint devoted to Joe Brolly's Marty Morrissey comments, and the Derry pundit has a track record in such matters - last year he was forced to apologise after disparaging remarks about Rachel Wyse, the presenter of Sky Sports' GAA coverage.
"From a professional point of view, I was, of course, disappointed about what Joe said. He had been trying to be funny and it didn't come across that way, but the matter is over now and Marty was very gracious in his acceptance of his apology. Look, we deliver an awful lot of live sport and analysis - hours of it a week - and sometimes things like that will happen."
Suggestions that RTÉ's studio-based sports coverage looks staid and dated are kicked into touch by Nugent. The technological toys you see on British-based, dedicated sports broadcasters are expensive and I'm not so sure they add as much as people might think. We Irish love a good debate and that's been the route that we have successfully pursued for quite some time. The ratings - and I don't want you to think that's all I care about - show that people engage with the way we do analysis."
Harry Browne, meanwhile, believes that RTÉ sport needs to introduce, in the words of a former Irish newspaper editor, "radical, but imperceptible change". He says: "I know that as a small broadcaster in the scheme of things it doesn't have a huge budget, but that doesn't mean it can't be that bit more creative when it comes to using the funds it has." He says it would be particularly good to see the radio coverage improve, and for some of its GAA reporters to be less deferential to managers and players than they currently are.
And yet, despite his criticism of RTÉ's "tired and somewhat dreary panels", the rival broadcaster acknowledges that they pull in significant media audiences. "In an ideal world, you'd think sports fans would want an altogether different offering, but then the fair-weather armchair fans would probably switch off. Sadly, this is a media world where ratings are all important".
Who RTÉ could sign
Richard Dunne: the just retired ex-international played at the highest level of the game for many years and knows the Irish set-up inside out.
Matt Holland: the articulate and incisive midfielder has plenty of broadcasting experience in Britain and represented his country with distinction in the 2002 World Cup.
Simon Best: the Ulsterman was forced to retire in 2008 due to an irregular heartbeat, so he has lived life outside the rugby goldfish bowl. But could he be critical of brother Rory, who still plays?
Brian O'Driscoll: a long-shot, especially as he has contracts with Newstalk and BT Sport, but if he were to become available in future, RTÉ might have to get the chequebook out.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: was one of the few hurlers to truly transcend his sport. A larger than life figure, the Corkonian won everything. He also played Gaelic football at the highest level.
Colm Parkinson: the ex-Laois footballer is a fixture on Newstalk's Off the Ball. Maybe time for 'Woolie" to ruffle features in the RTÉ studio?