Minister to put Heineken Cup rugby matches on free TV list
RUGBY fans can look forward to watching Heineken Cup matches live on their regular free Irish television channels, the Irish Independent has learned.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan obtained cabinet approval this week to try to wrestle the matches from major sports channels that charge viewers.
Government ministers approved his plan to add the Heineken Cup qualifiers, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final to the "free to air" list when an Irish team is participating.
The Government will now have to get its decision passed by the European Commission and prove that the Heineken matches are of "major national importance to society".
Previous free-to-air list proposals have been rubber-stamped without any great dispute or difficulty.
Under the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (2007), EU member states may designate certain sporting and cultural events as being of major importance to society.
Up until now, rugby fans had to rely on costly sports television packages or deferred television coverage to see Heineken Cup matches. When Leinster and Munster met in the Heineken semi-final in Croke Park last year, supporters had to descend on pubs with Sky Sports, listen in on radio or wait for the deferred television coverage.
The Government's proposed changes will represent a significant loss to major sports channels and sports bodies in terms of revenue.
Over 12 months ago, members of the public were asked to make suggestions to the Government on what they believed should be "free to air" on Irish television channels.
If the Government gets its proposals passed at European level, any contracts or deals with Sky Sports will remain in place but the channel will have to make the matches available to RTE1, RTE2, TV3 and TG4 at "normal market rates".
It means the Sky logo could still appear on Irish television screens during the matches but with commentary coming from the Irish stations.
Mr Ryan last night told the Irish Independent he believed the rugby events were "part of what we are" and "should be available to as many people as possible".
By law, the new proposed list of free-to-air events must now go to public consultation to allow the public, broadcasters and stakeholders to respond. Advertisements will appear in the media on Monday inviting a response to the decision.
Sports bodies and sports channels are likely to object as they would suffer a loss in revenue if the rugby matches are taken away from the larger sports channels that pay significant fees to obtain rights to the matches.
Currently, the summer Olympics, the All-Ireland senior football and hurling finals, qualifying games in the European football championship, opening games, the semi-finals and the final of the European Championship and the FIFA World Cup Finals are on the free-to-air list.
Also on the list are games in the rugby World Cup, the Six Nations, the Irish Grand National and the Irish Derby and the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show.
In 2002, the Government drew up its first list of free-to-air events after RTE lost the right to screen live coverage of Ireland's home soccer matches for four years to Sky Sports. A year later, the Government designated home games among sports events as free to air.
In 2006, RTE urged the Government to obtain the broadcasting rights for the Ryder Cup at the K Club from Sky Sports and provide it for free in the "national interest".
After a three-month review, the Government agreed to provide deferred coverage.