Monday 15 October 2018

Colm O'Rourke: GAA has sold its soul to line Murdoch's pockets

Sky venture will have repercussions much further down the line

Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

In the end, they sold out. Simple as that. There are no core principles left in the GAA anymore. I know plenty of people will think, 'He would say that wouldn't he', given my long involvement with RTé on The Sunday Game, but when you strip away all the sugar-coating there are only stark commercial realities.

Sky do not give a monkeys about the GAA, about its history, culture or anything else. They just want to get their channels into as many houses as possible and get people signed up and paying. Good luck to them in that. I have Sky and enjoy rugby, horse racing, soccer, cricket and every other sport they cover in very high quality. At this stage I would not like to be without it.

Yet that is not the point. All these sports are professional and the benefit of money has filtered through to the players, in some cases at the expense of the sport itself in numbers attending games. It is not all good news. The GAA has said it is not about the money and if not there seems no good reason to make this massive leap. The message from Croke Park is that this is going to have worldwide consequences, make the organisation bigger and have an appeal in new markets.

The players have been quiet so far but for how long? Is it realistic to think that the players, who are key to the whole thing, are going to stand by and not get paid out of the increased revenues? Australia's AFL and England's Premier League became awash with money as a result of lucrative TV rights.

The big sell on this is that it will allow those forced to emigrate, or who wanted to get out, an opportunity to watch the games. Now I might be missing something here but there are few people I know abroad who don't already see any match they want. They are shown in pubs, cinemas and GAA clubs in almost all cities of the world. Added to this now is a new high-quality internet service so where is this massive need for Sky to enter this market?

There is no doubt that Sky will bring new technology, maybe better analysis and all the gizmos we associate with their superb sports coverage. Bill Clinton, or one of his advisers, famously noted, "It's the economy, stupid". It is the same with the GAA. It's the game, stupid. That's the bottom line and for the first time people will have to pay to watch GAA matches, and currently less than 20 per cent of Irish homes have Sky. If the GAA had done a deal where Sky and RTé both showed the games, you might be able to make the case that Sky could internationalise the games – whatever that means.

As it is, this will really hit home at the quarter-final stage in August. Last year, it was Mayo against Donegal – it was a real heavyweight contest but if it was on Sky large numbers of Mayo and Donegal supporters would be excluded from viewing it. It is ironic too that it would force people into pubs to watch games when the GAA at the same time is mounting very laudable initiatives about the dangers of alcohol. Does anybody see the contradiction? People in Australia could see the game live and for free while the locals are in the dark.

I don't think anyone will complain about Sky and RTé going head to head with the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. Let the best horse win the race, competition is always healthy. At one stage of the final last year between Mayo and Dublin there were over 1.3 million viewers so there is a massive audience. This amounts to a quarter of the population which is unheard of in most countries. It would equate to 15 million people watching a sporting event in Britain. Even the Grand National could not match that.

Sky Sports has great appeal to young people and sport is portrayed as very exciting on their channels. Yet strangely I could find very few students in my school who had anything good to say about this deal. They looked on it mainly from the point of view of how it would impact on their grandparents as much as themselves.

Most of them don't have Sky Sports and their parents have greater financial priorities than getting it to watch GAA matches. They see that as grossly unfair and fairness is an important concept with teenagers. They also feel that those who have contributed to the development of their clubs should be able to watch all games free in their older years.

Over my time in RTé I have always felt that the GAA at the highest level were always a bit suspicious of The Sunday Game and have not encouraged further coverage. It seems absurd to me that TG4, who do a very good job, have almost twice as many games live on TV than RTé . Indeed, RTé should have been showing some live National League and club championship games. It certainly would have been the best vehicle to promote the Allianz Leagues.

For now the dye is cast but to me this is a con job. The future will see more Sky coverage and less free-to-air because in the end, money talks. However, the national games will always be a better fit for the national station and if I was a player now I would be wondering where the shift in the goalposts is bringing the GAA. If there is a lot more money it should be distributed in some form of Irish solution to the players.

Ultimately, though, this deal is divisive when all the smoke and mirrors have been removed. It discriminates against the poor, the old

and the young and the manure will really hit the fan if two very appealing quarter-finals cannot be seen next August.

There are few organisations left that are really owned by the people and now the greatest of them all has been sold to a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, who hardly cares about the GAA, amateurism, community-building, and what it means to Irish people. It is just another method of making money, something he is very good at.

I agreed with opening up Croke Park and would not mind other grounds being used for things which would ease financial pressures on clubs who are in dire straits but I can't buy this line. The GAA have sold their soul, pawned the family silver and got very little in return.

PS: The Leinster under 21 final was played in Portlaoise last Wednesday night on a miserable evening for travelling. The numbers attending reflected that, a small crowd with little or no atmosphere.

Dublin would have won no matter where it was played because they were just a bit slicker but Meath through sheer honesty of effort made them work for their win.

Yet it was an opportunity lost for promotion and put unnecessary travel time and inconvenience on players, officials and supporters. The Leinster Council don't get it wrong too often but this was one. They should have ruled on Navan or Dublin as the venue and saved all the hassle.

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