GAA faces big challenge selling the Sky deal to its membership
The only big surprise about the announcement that Sky has trapped a large chunk of GAA championship coverage in its subscription web is that so many people appear shocked by it.
Once the GAA sold part of its Allianz League package to Setanta – also a subscription channel – some years ago, it was only a matter of time before some of the championship action was hawked down a similar route. Croke Park remained largely unchallenged by the membership for selling off League action to Setanta, even if this left supporters with a choice of either buying the channel or missing the games.
Apart from an occasional complaint at Congress, the move to 'subscription land' for some League games was met with apathy. TG4 retained coverage of the Sunday League games, which appeared to satisfy the public appetite.
Against that background, it was always likely that when it came to the championships the GAA would eventually dance with a subscription partner, if they were asked. Indeed, many of their top power brokers have long been throwing adoring eyes in the direction of Sky Sports, hoping that the channel would reciprocate.
That has now come to pass and starting on June 7, when Kilkenny play Offaly in the Leinster hurling championship, Sky Sports will play a large part in the Irish sporting summer. RTE will still be the dominant broadcaster – showing 31 games exclusive to Sky's 14 – but the fact that so much of the championship will be behind a pay wall represents a historic change of emphasis by the GAA.
And while there may well be a solid commercial basis underpinning their decision, they will quickly find, just as players have over many years, that there's a big difference between League and Championship. The public weren't unduly perturbed by not being able to watch Saturday night League games on terrestrial channels but will press the outrage button at the prospect of missing championship action.
Their anger will be further whipped up by channels which have a vested interest in portraying the deal with Sky as a cross between treason and malice. RTE weighed in heavily in their coverage last night, appearing to stand up gallantly for hard-pressed consumers when a more measured view of their stance might be that they don't want Sky anywhere near the GAA.
Fair enough, business is business but please don't dress it up as defending the interests of the viewing public against the rapacious forces of evil. As for TV3's statement that their bid to continue championship coverage "appears to have been superseded by the GAA's preference for a pay television strategy", it sounded like whinging from bad losers.
Croke Park can expect heavy fire for the Sky deal, not least because it's easy to peddle the emotive argument that the GAA has betrayed its grassroots. That doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny since the number of free-to-air games will be only nine fewer than last year. It's scarcely a sell-out to pay-per-view, especially since RTE has retained the All-Ireland finals, semi-finals, provincial finals, the two hurling quarter-finals and two of the football quarter-finals.
The new deal will be a major boost to Irish people abroad who will have far easier access to GAA coverage. That's very important at a time when emigration is so high, leaving many people anxious to maintain their Irish identity in a foreign country.
It won't take long to gauge how successful the new deal is. Will Sky Sports bring a new, innovative approach? If so, how will RTE, who in fairness have done an excellent job on the championship over many years, react? Competition is good in every walk of life and a challenge from Sky could be exactly what RTE needs to take its coverage to another level. If that's the case, then the public will gain.
One of the big fears among opponents of Sky's entry is that this may be the start of something slow and sinister and that if the arrangement works well, it could lead to the subscription channel tightening its grip in the next deal. It's a fair point but ultimately this is about what the GAA decides.
It's their product to sell so they can do with it as they wish. That, in turn, raises another relevant issue.
The GAA is noted for its democracy, often to an infuriating degree where a relatively simple matter has to go before a full gathering of Congress. Yet, a decision on whether to sell championship coverage to a subscription channel – something that impacts on all GAA members – can be taken by a very small group and announced as a fait accompli.
Given the commercial sensitivities involved, that may be inevitable but surely a broad discussion on TV coverage should take place before the next deal is struck so that negotiators know the views of the GAA membership.
In the meantime, the GAA faces a big challenge in selling the Sky Sports deal to its membership. Opponents will have a field day, just as they did when it was proposed to redevelop Croke Park at a massive cost in the early 1990s. That didn't turn out too bad, now did it?