Saturday 20 January 2018

Time to tune in or lose out

John O'Brien

When tributes poured in for Liam Mulvhill after he announced his retirement as the GAA's director-general in 2007, it seemed almost obligatory to point out that the Longford man had "overseen" the era of live television, as if this should be regarded as one of his loftiest achievements. This seemed rather odd. Like hailing a business magnate of the 1990s, perhaps, for furnishing his staff with mobile telephones.

If there were any number of reasons to applaud Mulvihill's admirable 29-year stewardship of the GAA, his dealings with television weren't foremost among them. The advent of the little box in the corner of most Irish living rooms supplanted the wireless as the chief commercial vehicle for anyone with a product to shift. It wasn't as if the GAA, if it wanted to be taken seriously as a modern commercial entity, could afford to ignore it.

Yet it has never embraced the medium with any sense of warmth or vigour. The GAA uses television as much as it feels it needs to, but no more than that. A couple of live games on summer weekends and the noble institution that is The Sunday Game -- if a little too heavy on controversy -- is generally enough to satisfy its palate while, twice a year, the heinous Up for the Match, with its homely, old-fashioned charm, portrays the association in a light it would deem accurate and favourable.

That is part of Mulvihill's enduring legacy. Each year as the championship loomed there would be a glitzy launch and talk of how many extra live hours would be screened that summer, becoming ever glitzier as more stations arrived to share broadcast duties with RTE. Yet the glitz would be tempered each spring when Mulvhill made his annual address to Congress and routinely warned against the dangers imposed by too many live games.

"While the increase in the coverage of our games has to be welcomed, I believe we need to think strategically about the television coverage of our games and ensure that we remain in control of how the coverage develops." So said Mulvihill as recently as 2005. And when his successor Páraic Duffy suggested last year that the number of live games would be curtailed it was a sign that Mulvihill's less-is-more policy would be maintained. For now the GAA remains firmly in control.

So while this may be the most enticing weekend yet this summer, the live television output won't reflect it. Two provincial finals this afternoon and last night's football qualifier between Laois and Kildare is as much as the GAA will sanction. Nothing from the Galway or Cork hurlers in Limerick or the Meath or Galway footballers in Navan. If you wanted to follow these games from afar, your only choice lay between radio bulletins or somebody's Twitter feed.

With a dollop of imagination, however, couldn't someone have looked at yesterday's fixture list and concluded that there was potential for an upset when Tyrone travelled to Pearse Park? Longford can be a hard nut to crack on their own turf, as Kerry will attest, and although the result might suggest otherwise, it stood out as an attractive live fixture. Put it this way: if it was the FA Cup would the BBC not have been drooling over such a tie? The romance of the Cup and all that.

There is a basic point to make here. After 10 years the All-Ireland qualifiers still struggle to engage the public imagination and they need all the help they can get and that includes television exposure. In 2009, when Wicklow enjoyed an exhilarating run in the qualifiers, the RTE cameras landed in Aughrim in July and players and officials

spoke of the enormous lift it gave them. The county grounds were spruced up in advance. Players could see the fruit of their labours. Everybody grew a few centimetres taller. That's the kind of trick the GAA is missing with its current policy.

You sometimes hear GAA officials talking about saturation coverage, but you wonder if they truly understand the meaning of the term. In all this summer 40 championship games will be screened live, 10 fewer than the previous year, and less than half the games needed to deliver champions in both codes. If that's saturation then the GAA needs to move into the modern world.

To put it into perspective, RTE screened 56 games live during last year's World Cup in South Africa and nobody complained that it was too much. Virtually every Celtic League game involving the three main rugby provinces are shown live and RTE would show all the European games too if they could live with Sky's financial muscle. Yet you don't hear rugby officials moaning about saturation coverage. They are thankful for every minute they get.

GAA objections generally centre around one key issue: attendances. When Duffy spoke last year about curtailing live broadcasts he stated as an opinion that live coverage had an adverse effect on attendances. But this line has always been put forward as a belief with no definitive basis in fact. Has the GAA conducted detailed research into how attendances are affected by television or are their theories based on anecdotal evidence and on how things seem?

For sure they will have viewed the 14,000 attendance for last week's Limerick-Wexford hurling qualifier, several thousand more than had been anticipated, and concluded that not showing it live was a critical factor. When Galway hosted Clare in Salthill later that evening, a match screened live by RTE, the attendance was a little over 13,000.

Yet the suspicion remains that live coverage may affect crowds but not by as much as some would have you believe. Last week proved nothing definitively. For one thing you have to factor reduced ticket prices into the equation and the obvious lack of enthusiasm in Galway for a team that had embarrassed itself against Dublin in the Leinster championship two weeks previously. Even more pertinently, you could look at last week's Munster football final in Killarney (attendance 40,892) or last month's All-Ireland qualifier between Meath and Louth at Breffni Park (attendance 18,243). Live television wasn't too much of a hindrance on those occasions.

The GAA can spot a pattern here if it so cares. Live television isn't the issue that should be troubling them. The truth is people will be more inclined to follow teams that are on an upward curve, where they can see signs of progress and hope of a sustained run. It's the bandwagon effect and, as much as we deride it, it's how it works in the GAA and virtually every professional code. Both of the GAA's flagship championships remain far too uncompetitive, too few counties providing hope that they can make the leap into the top tier. Live screening of games isn't the source of that problem.

Bandwagons run on the fuel of hype, of course, and television is the most obvious refuelling station. But the groundwork needs to be done away from the cameras. Last week saw the resignation of three hurling managers from counties who had won All-Irelands in the 1990s and, if they all had reasonably long tenures, it still alluded to the alarming truth that,

beyond Tipperary and Kilkenny, hurling remains in poor health, even allowing for Dublin's progress. Lack of care is what is undermining it. Not television.

In a sense, though, the GAA's distrust of television isn't all that surprising. The GAA hates hype, after all, and that is television's métier. You could suggest, for example, that Sky Sports' Saturday offering where Jeff Stelling and a coterie of former players sit beside a bank of screens and give updates on games might work well for a round of Saturday evening qualifiers, knowing it would cause consternation in Croke Park where their games are seen as a pure manifestation of everything professional soccer is not. To be fair, they probably have a point on that.

Yet it seems very strange that such a remarkable institution can take so many huge strides over the years, most recently welcoming the Queen to Croke Park, and yet seem so recalcitrant when it comes to the straightforward matter of screening games.

The small encased box that once sat in the corner with aluminium wires poking out the top has grown into a 42-inch plasma monster with high-definition potential and the GAA remains as terrified as ever.

And that is an odd thing indeed.

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