Friday 23 February 2018

A crowded playing field - good news for armchair sports fans

Sinead Kissane, who is part of the TV3 team for this year's rugby World Cup
Sinead Kissane, who is part of the TV3 team for this year's rugby World Cup
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was news that sent shock waves through the Irish media landscape in April 2014. TV3 had just done the unthinkable: outbid RTÉ for the exclusive rights to show all 48 matches in the Rugby World Cup which kicks off on September 18.

Those who thought that RTÉ would go for broke in order to land the biggest sporting tournament of 2015 - and one that Joe Schmidt's well-drilled squad could potentially do very well in - failed to appreciate the slashed budgets that senior executives in Montrose were having to work with. The national broadcaster was also having to contend with the threat of Sky Sports whose three-year contract to show select GAA Championship games commenced last summer.

RTÉ radio will have exclusive rights to broadcast the tournament here, but station bosses admit it's a consolation prize: If Ireland reach a semi-final, as many expect them to, few will opt for Michael Corcoran's radio commentary on Radio 1 rather than TV3, which will feature Match of the Day and BBC Five Live football commentator Conor McNamara.

TV3 refused to reveal how much they had spent acquiring the rights, but CEO David McRedmond is adamant that it is a wise investment, especially as the broadcaster is reporting exceptional interest in its advertising packages built around the tournament. The commercial station is also hoping that it can demonstrate its readiness to deliver six weeks of sport in a fresh and innovative way.

Presented by Matt Copper and Sinéad Kissane and featuring analysis from ex-Leinster coach Matt Williams and celebrated Irish international Keith Wood among others, it is likely to be a different experience to the long-running RTÉ coverage provided by the likes of Tom McGurk and George Hook, both now retired.

TV3 is also planning to roll out its HD service in time for the World Cup, and DIT media lecturer Harry Browne says failure to do so would be disastrous. "One of the reasons I don't like watching [Champions League] football on TV3 is because it's not shown in high definition and the new breed of TVs show up the difference badly."

The advent of Sky Sports in the GAA market has introduced viewers to a style and presentation in part borrowed from its game-changing Premier League coverage, and RTÉ have responded with some big-name 'signings', including Henry Shefflin, the 10-time All-Ireland winner and former Kilkenny player. Shefflin's former teammate Eddie Brennan has proved to be an able pundit on The Sunday Game over the past few years and ex-Cork goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack has been as outspoken as an analyst as he was as a player. The cognoscenti reckon that RTÉ's hurling analysis is more incisive than its Gaelic football analysis.

While rival broadcasters are locked in a battle for rights - that will only intensify in the coming years - the viewer has never had it so good when it comes to sport on TV. The three main codes - football, GAA and rugby - are covered comprehensively by the likes of Setanta and TG4 as well as RTÉ and TV3, and the GAA and rugby coverage in particular is unrecognisable from the sporadic events that were broadcast live in the 1980s and early 1990s.

While inter-station rivalry is keen here, it's nothing compared to the high stakes war being waged in Britain. Despite its formidable resources, Sky Sports will face into the 2015/16 season without Champions League football having been outbid by comparatively new upstart, BT Sport. The commercial station stumped up more than €1bn in a deal which will also see it broadcast Europa League matches. It's not just Sky who are losing out: ITV have also lost the rights to show selected games in Europe's premier football competition, which means it will not be possible for UK viewers to watch Champions League on terrestrial, free-to-air television.

BT Sport has unveiled ex-England international and current Match of the Day host Gary Lineker as its anchor. Lineker isn't the only big sporting name that the BBC will have lost over the years. It has found itself consistently outbid for football rights, in particular, and has had to 'big-up' its less glamorous acquisitions, including the FA Cup.

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