Wednesday 17 January 2018

Flawed system of free-to-air designation leaves itself open to ridicule

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
John Greene

John Greene

The All-Ireland camogie and ladies' football finals are of greater national interest than Irish rugby internationals, according to a decision announced last week.

The Minister for Communications, Climate and Energy, Denis Naughten, has designated the two finals as 'events of major importance to society'. In doing so, the minister has ensured that the television rights to these games cannot be sold to pay-per-view providers and that they must be shown free to air in Ireland.

The two finals join a celebrated list of other sporting events which enjoy this protection, which must be shown freely to the nation. These include the All-Ireland football and hurling finals, European and World Cup qualifying games for the Republic of Ireland and the tournaments themselves, the Olympics, the Irish Grand National, the Irish Derby, the Aga Khan Trophy and Ireland's games in the Rugby World Cup.

That there is an implicit endorsement for women's sport is certainly welcome, but let's not pretend it is something that it is not.

If this were being done because of a government policy which acknowledges the importance of putting women's sport on a level playing field then we could break out the Champagne and applaud ourselves that we have finally arrived. But this is not the case. It is about money, which increasingly is what modern sport is all about, and we should know this particularly on this weekend.

"While the designation guarantees that these events must be freely available on television, it also confirms that they are of special resonance and have a distinct cultural importance for the people of Ireland," said the minister last Wednesday.

"I have always been adamant that ladies' football and camogie be treated equally with men's football and hurling and today's announcement recognises that equality. There is no doubt in my mind that ladies' GAA sporting heroes have become solid role models for young girls growing up in Ireland. GAA is part of our DNA as a country so it is only right that everyone gets to enjoy the female and male finals equally - either live in Croke Park or at home on television on a free-to-air basis. The finals are the result of a long, hard road for the teams. The designation of these events is also an acknowledgment of the valuable contribution that the representative associations make to women's sport throughout Ireland."

Which is fair enough. But what about so-called 'events of national importance' which are not on this list? Ireland's games in the Six Nations continues to be a glaring omission. As does the Irish Open in golf, given our rich heritage in the sport. And what about the European Rugby Champions Cup, a competition that resonates hugely in the Irish sporting psyche and which can only be watched at the moment by subscribing to two broadcasting giants which sit behind a paywall?

Apparently, because the issue over Ireland's Six Nations games being freely available does not arise until 2021 there was no urgency in dealing with it in this latest list which required - and received - the backing of the European Commission and is in place for three years. This is nonsense, because it serves only to kick a thorny issue down the road for the next government. What are the odds on the next television deal for the Six Nations being locked down before then? The debate has become confused: on the one hand, there is no hurry with looking into the possibility of keeping the Six Nations free to air, but there is with camogie and ladies' football. Which is most likely to first attract the interest of the subscription channels?

The IRFU makes good money out of its television rights, particularly in the Six Nations, and it does not want to have to start negotiating with one, or both, hands tied behind its back. The Union has repeatedly argued that it needs a free hand to negotiate, and that it has suffered in the past in this regard at a time when other unions have increased their revenue. It's a perfectly reasonable argument, one which also applies to other sporting organisations.

The way sport is being delivered to homes now is more fractured than ever before, and the break-up continues apace. You can't even watch the same competition on just one platform anymore - whether it's the GAA's championships, the NFL, MLB, or the Premier League, you need multiple subscriptions and, of course, a tv licence and increasingly, a social media presence.

The argument over whether the GAA, IRFU or FAI - or any of the other national sporting bodies - should sell their games to television channels which will charge people to watch them is an entirely separate one to the selective nature in which successive governments have chosen to lock down some events over others. The government should take a broad view on this issue and apply an even-handed approach, or else step out of the picture entirely. We all want easy access to our cherished national sporting events, but how do you pick one over another the way the government seems to be doing?

The GAA, the FAI and Horse Racing Ireland are just as entitled as the IRFU to enter the tv rights market freely. Why should we pay to watch Munster and Leinster in Europe but not the Irish soccer team?

This is an arbitrary decision which cannot be justified by simply saying that one has a special resonance for the people of Ireland, and the other doesn't. It's a flawed system which leaves itself open to ridicule.

On the face of it, last week's decision was a boost for women's sport in Ireland. But, in an ideal world, why can't the Camogie Association or the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association be allowed to look for top dollar for their games, just like the IRFU? We should be looking to get past the point where they are just happy to have their games on television at all.

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