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Will the Sky Sports/GAA deal trigger pay-for-play demands?

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GAA Ard Stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy and JD Buckley, Managing Director of Sky Ireland

GAA Ard Stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy and JD Buckley, Managing Director of Sky Ireland

GAA Ard Stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy and JD Buckley, Managing Director of Sky Ireland

It's 23 years since grim predictions of a player revolt swept across the GAA landscape. Sponsorship logos were allowed on jerseys for the first time in 1991 and, according to the purveyors of hysteria, it would be followed by an immediate demand from players for some form of payment. The unsustainable rationale held that because players were being forced to wear jerseys bearing company names, they would insist on cash being stuffed into their kit bags in return.

It didn't happen. Players saw sponsorship as a natural progression in a changing sporting environment, and while they rightly expected that some of the income would flow towards them in the form of better facilities, gear, expenses and medical treatment, they never asked for direct financial aid.

Those who had predicted industrial strife between the GAA and the players fell silent, waiting for the next opportunity to launch their shrill warnings of impending war over pay-for-play.

It arrived a year later when the GAA announced that the redevelopment of Croke Park would include a tier of expensive corporate boxes all around the ground. That, warned the naysayers, would inflame players into open rebellion as they contemplated a match-day situation where they stretched themselves to the limit of their ability and endurance for no financial reward while purring fat cats, who had enjoyed their beef wellington washed down by the finest claret, looked on.

The uprising never materialised. Players recognised that the corporate dimension to Croke Park was central to the overall financial package, designed to pay a substantial part of the redevelopment. Besides, the new stadium would provide them with a world-class facility in which to ply their trade.

When the GPA arrived as a major force early in the new millennium, it was supposed to have pay-for-play as its ultimate target. Various flashpoints between the GPA and Croke Park further convinced the conspiracy theorists that serious trouble lay ahead. Once again, they were wrong.

There have been various other developments over the years when predictions of imminent pay-for-play claims were made, but all proved groundless.

And then along comes the Sky Sports deal with the GAA, followed closely by assertions that pay-for-play demands can't be far behind.

Where, in the name of all that's remotely logical, is the basis for that? The GAA insists that the new deal, where Sky Sports replaces TV3, won't bring in a significant amount of extra cash (the figures will be published for all to see in next year's accounts) so why should the players' attitude change?

It's important not to confuse pay-per-view with pay-for-play. The idea that players would demand some form of financial recompense because Croke Park has struck a deal with a subscription channel makes no sense.

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As with the rest of the GAA membership, players will have differing views on the link-up with Sky Sports, but that won't extend to a demand for payment, even by those who support the deal.

If you doubt that, check out the GPA response, which has been favourable.

The pay-for-play rumour boat left harbour a long time ago and won't be returning.

It was always a comfortable vessel, taking the for and against lobbies on an enjoyable trip where both sides indulged in a philosophical kickabout without ever coming close to changing each other's minds.

The pro-lobby talked – and still do – of the perceived unfairness of not offering financial reward to players who put so much into the games.

However you view the validity of that argument – and in fairness it has some merit – it cannot be advanced on the basis of a particular set of circumstances, whether they involve carrying sponsors' logos on jerseys, the redevelopment of Croke Park or selling TV rights to Sky Sports.

To suggest that pay-for-play will return to the agenda because Sky Sports have exclusive rights to 14 championship games is nothing more than an emotive reaction to a new situation.

If GAA players were to wander down the pay-for-play route because of the Sky deal, it would be a massive mistake. Any such demands would have be based on the solid argument that (a) it's the right thing to do, (b) it's sustainable, and (c) it's well-thought out.

Single issue justifications, such as a subscription channel getting a slice of the TV rights pie, tick none of those boxes.

Yes, says Vincent Hogan, because what we are witnessing is the first profound move away from amateur ethos

ON Newstalk last Tuesday night, Paraic Duffy said he didn't see pay-for-play being an issue for the GAA "in the short-term".

Seldom has a four-word addendum come freighted with more gunpowder. The director-general is a smart man, innately careful with his language. If he understood (and presumably he did) the flash-fire of discord thrown up by that day's breaking news, Duffy wasn't exactly reaching for a bucket.

Anyone who imagines that the Association's first truly purposeful engagement with pay-per-view doesn't change absolutely what it now represents must not be familiar with a commercial vocabulary.

April Fool's Day 2014 has, effectively, rewritten the GAA's constitution and, sadly, history may deem the timing entirely apposite.

We know now that pay-for-play is no longer just the reactionary label applied to some kind of Armageddon being prophesied by loons. It is coming over the hill, unstoppably. The immediate content of the Sky deal isn't significant. The potential to ratchet it up in small multiples at future negotiation is.

Naturally, the pro argument assumes a kind of power-walking narrative that there cannot possibly be negatives in nurturing fresh profit streams and exploring different, more innovative markets.

But that is the code of big business. The GAA likes to present itself as something unique to us as people, something different, something incomparable in terms of the local pride it engenders, a classless body driven by collectivism and – above all – one fostering the concept of co-ownership.

That concept is now as real as Darby O'Gill.

On Tuesday, the official message was a tangle of eulogies to the fresh TV access (albeit subscription-based everywhere bar Australia) now afforded the vast Irish diaspora abroad. This is undoubtedly a plus, yet to suggest that gaels worldwide will celebrate that news – irrespective of what long-term implications it might carry – is to make a pretty dangerous assumption of what it is that draws them to their national games.

Sky will not be in this as compliant partners. That isn't their modus operandi.

So when they return to the negotiating table in 2017, what exactly will they seek? For RTE to be competing against them is, in financial terms, the equivalent of Aer Arann looking to out-muscle Ryanair. So we are being asked to believe that the GAA power brokers, the people who took this decision in isolation of consultation with their broad membership, can be trusted to do what is honourable rather than profitable?

You could forgive Liam O'Neill's clumsy suggestion on Tuesday's 'Six One News' that non-subscription holders merely go to the house of a neighbour who has paid for Sky. Live television doesn't always facilitate easy delivery of a sincerely-held view and nobody should doubt that O'Neill (or indeed Duffy) now understands the anger rinsing through clubs the length and breadth of the country.

That anger, much of it voiced on 'Liveline' yesterday, doesn't reflect some kind of wild, irrational din.

It reflects the natural concern that this is a gateway moment. That embracing the pay-per-view model for championship will go down as the first truly profound step away from the GAA's amateur ethos that we are led to believe is so coveted by those in power.

One thing we can surely say with certainty is that, come 2017, Sky will push for a bigger slice of the cake and will do so with the resources to make that push compelling. And the more ingrained pay-per-view becomes in the GAA psyche, the more difficult it will clearly be to reconcile it with players' amateur status.

Yesterday, the Gaelic Players' Association founder, Donal O'Neill, was quoted as saying that the Sky deal "changes the future landscape dramatically".

O'Neill may no longer be involved with the GPA, but his assertion brooks no serious argument.

For the deal with Sky threatens the very difference that has, since its foundation, been the beating heart of GAA life.

On Twitter yesterday, players seemed positively giddy with excitement. Do you honestly believe a part of that excitement wasn't in, subconsciously at least, seeing themselves presented on the same stage as Wayne Rooney, the recipient of in excess of £300,000 a week?

Paraic Duffy talked on Tuesday night of Sky wanting to build "a summer-long" narrative, yet insisted the core of the Gaelic games calendar "will always be shown free-to-air". Listening, you couldn't but think that, in a commercial forum, one of those concepts will always be incompatible with the other.

And, for all the spin, this week's news was fundamentally commercial.

My colleague, Martin Breheny, wrote yesterday that the GAA was fully entitled to make this week's decision. "It's their product to sell, so they can do with it as they wish," he said.

Perhaps so, but who are the GAA? The answer seems to have eluded those now doing the cheer-leading.


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