Monday 16 December 2019

Positives outweigh negatives in daring coup d'GAA

Director General of the GAA Páraic Duffy, right, and JD Buckley, Managing Director, Sky Ireland at Croke Park
Director General of the GAA Páraic Duffy, right, and JD Buckley, Managing Director, Sky Ireland at Croke Park

Tommy Conlon

When they were planning this particular contract coup, the top brass obviously figured it would be better to explain afterwards, rather than ask for permission first.

They went for the fait accompli instead of the more cumbersome process of prior consultation, and the lottery of an open vote at GAA's annual Congress.

And it's hard to blame them, given the volume of noise and nonsense that erupted last week – even though people were in possession of the main facts. Imagine what it would've been like if the deal had first been floated as merely a proposal for general discussion; a tidal wave of paranoia and misinformation would've filled the vacuum and flooded the debate.

So Liam O'Neill, Páraic Duffy and Peter McKenna opted for a degree of strategic convenience in the planning and execution of this startling manoeuvre. They showed bottle too, and plenty of it, in taking this quantum leap into the free-market waters of pay TV.

In the GAA's civil service culture of committees and caution, they showed an unusual level of leadership. Traditionally, the president and director-general and other senior honchos have lagged behind the membership when moving for change. This time round they've led from the front and demanded that the grassroots masses catch up.

And sure enough, more than a few objectors from these ranks demanded immediately that the front-runners slow down and come back to the pack. They weren't one bit impressed with Croke Park's new-model media rights deal.

Fresh fulminations abounded. Even the gag about the 'Grab All Association' got another outing from the old jokes home, despite its advanced decrepitude.

In fairness, it was coined for a reason: the GAA has rarely kept its eye off the money ball throughout its history. As the fella said long ago, they'd go down your neck for a fiver. In this case, however, Duffy stated clearly that the financial benefit from the deal with Sky TV was "marginal".

But when negotiations are re-opened again three years hence, the association will almost certainly be facing a massive growth spurt in the cash on offer from television. RTé, for one, have now been given fair warning. Their near monopoly on Gaelic games is dead.

Any organisation looking to sell its services would want exactly this kind of scenario. The GAA has had to deal with a stagnant marketplace for far too long. Theirs was a co-dependent relationship with RTé. Both parties needed each other, they were stuck together whether they liked it or not.

But Croke Park finally has managed to engineer some proper competition. If there's only one serious bidder you're on the back foot before negotiations even begin. With two bidders you have an auction – and the lid comes off the pot. The GAA will be poised to capitalise in 2017.

This in itself is a great day's work. They need the money, they will always need the money, because the spending on infrastructure, coaching and promotion is a bottomless pit. It never ends.

And the clubs don't see enough of it either. The 80 per cent of net revenue that is reputedly poured back into the organisation somehow rarely seems to percolate down to the many clubs nationwide that are hanging on by their fingernails to the bank overdraft. The volunteers are worn out selling lottery tickets and organising fundraisers; the local punters in the pubs are worn out paying for them.

Everyone needs a break. The next round of TV money can't come fast enough. There has to be a dividend for the clubs and if there is, then O'Neill et al will have done some service.

That's for the future. In the here and now, they have also made an important connection with Irish emigrants all over the world. The new online streaming service will, all going well, transform access to Gaelic games for those hundreds of thousands that constitute the GAA's global ummah. Fans in the UK and Australia will be able follow the championship on television in their own homes.

This is real and meaningful progress. They have left the empty platitudes about the diaspora to the political classes; Croke Park, with this deal, has actually done something about it.

Of course, there were plausible fears and reservations articulated last week. And it's hard to argue that the deal with Sky does not

erode some of the social cohesion which has given the GAA its rock-solid foundation. It will certainly disenfranchise some fraction of its elderly and disadvantaged community.

But 14 championship matches is hardly the end of the earth either. Between RTé and TG4 they will still be getting a fairly generous and regular fix of the big ball and small.

Personally, I wouldn't be especially excited about how Sky will present and cover the games. They long ago forced RTé Sport to modernise its coverage anyway. The national broadcaster has got on board with its proliferation of cameras, action replays and super slow-motion spectacle.

Editorially, RTé needs to evolve, both in the studio and the commentary box. But Sky's editorial efforts, in its soccer coverage particularly, have been laughably shallow and feeble for most of its flash existence. One hopes they realise that Paddy doesn't like too much smooth talking.

The burning question is whether pay-per-view will become another step on the road to pay-for-play. Slowly, surely, it seems to be hardening into an inexorable process. But that's a matter for another day.

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