Thursday 5 December 2019

Niall Collins: A forward-looking and commercially astute decision

Sky deal ensures Gaelic games' penetration to widest possible audience

Sky Sports will show the All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Championships after securing a three-year deal to show live matches from June 2014
Sky Sports will show the All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Championships after securing a three-year deal to show live matches from June 2014
Ard Stiúrthóir of the GAA Páraic Duffy, right, and JD Buckley, Managing Director, Sky Ireland

Niall Collins

Nestled in the cosy surroundings of Rupert Street in the heart of London's West End lies Waxy O'Connor's public house. Casting an eye to the other side of the world, if you stroll down Elizabeth Street towards Eagle Street in Brisbane's central business district, you will stumble across The Queensland Irish Club.

I spent a large part of my career in London and Brisbane and have fond memories of sitting in both Waxy's and the Irish Club getting my fix of all things GAA. However, while I typically enjoyed the trek to both establishments, I couldn't help feeling that those living beyond Irish shores should have far easier access to coverage of games.

The GAA's announcement last week that it had entered into a three-year union with Sky should be welcomed. When coupled with landing the delivery of all 45 live games to Australia via Channel 7, GAA powerbrokers have demonstrated a commitment to ensuring the effective promotion and penetration of Gaelic games to the widest possible audience. This is a forward-looking and commercially astute decision by the GAA.

Competition from Sky Sports and the process of rivalry should also be welcomed. Vigorous competition tends to deliver the best out of a firm. Further, promoting competition is broadly accepted as one of the best available tools for enhancing consumer welfare. Sky's commitment to sport has been unrivalled to date. It seamlessly moulds top-quality sporting action with cutting-edge technology and expert punditry and, in the process, arguably sets the standard by which all sport on television is judged.

Just as the relatively recent arrival of BT Sport onto the playing field will likely see Sky further enhancing its product and consumer experience, I am sure RTE and others will meet the challenge from the broadcasting behemoth head on.

Although the writing was on the wall for some time, it is understandable that the arrival of Sky Sports – once described by Rupert Murdoch as the 'battering ram' of pay television – would arouse a feeling of unease within some observers. We witnessed a similar unease around, for example, the introduction of commercial logos on GAA jerseys and the opening up of Croke Park to international rugby and soccer. It is difficult to objectively view those decisions by the GAA as anything other than a resounding success.

There has also been talk of a sell-out by the GAA, which is entirely inappropriate. RTE will carry 31 games, including the All-Ireland and provincial finals, the All-Ireland semi-finals, the hurling quarter-finals and two of the football quarter-finals. RTE also has exclusive Irish rights to 25 of those 31 games. Sky Sports will carry a total of 20 games, including the All-Ireland finals and semi-finals, with 14 games being carried on an exclusive basis in Ireland. However, if the GAA were so minded, it would be quite entitled to hand to Sky Sports all games other than the All-Ireland finals.

The EU's Television Without Frontiers Directive, as amended by the Audio Visual Media Services Directive, provides the legal basis for EU member states to compile lists of special sporting and cultural events that are seen to be of major national importance to citizens. Events so designated and approved by the European Commission must be available on free-to-air television. This regime is reflected in the Irish Broadcasting Act.

It is commonly considered that these special events, sometimes called 'crown jewels', constitute important aspects of the human right to freedom of information. Further, without adequate legal safeguards, pay television broadcasters would have powerful incentives to outbid free-to-air broadcasters for such events.

In May 2011, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources decided that the then current list of special events should not be amended, notwithstanding the fact that an independent economic report prepared by Indecon opined that, in addition to the All-Ireland finals, the All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals, the provincial football finals and the Munster and Leinster provincial hurling finals were events of major national importance. They were "distinctively Irish sports and have a generally recognised cultural importance for the Irish population".

However, in deciding not to designate those additional games, the minister noted that based on assurances from the GAA, he believed those games would continue to be shown on a free-to-air platform. It would be interesting to see how the minister would react to any decision to move such games from free-to-air.

Turning to an equally interesting debate, which pundits will deliver Sky's coverage? Who will be the GAA incarnation of Carragher and Neville? I'm off to have a few bob on my old team-mate Colm Parkinson or 'Woolberto' to you Twitterati. I see that Paddy Power is still offering a tempting 11/4.

Niall Collins is a former Laois footballer and a partner in Irish law firm Mason Hayes & Curran.

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