Many saw the Sky GAA deal as the end, but it was only the beginning
In the wake of the decision to grant Sky exclusive access to 14 championship matches in 2014, the serving GAA president Liam O’Neill found himself in the firing line. Critics lined up, guns cocked, ready to unload. One of the early shooters was a parish priest from Kerry. “He told me my name would live in perfidy forever,” says O’Neill, eight years later. “I said, ‘Where, by the way, is that?’”
Another priest phoned him up to declare that the deeds of good men die with them, but their wrongdoings live forever. Lots of letters were penned in anger as if the GAA had cavorted with the devil. “My standard response was, ‘Thank you for your recent correspondence, the contents of which have been noted’,” says O’Neill, now a passing observer, less than a week after the GAA cut its connection to Sky in a revamped broadcasting rights package covering the next five years.
The GAA and television have had an interesting co-existence. Sixty years ago the first live televised All-Ireland final, the meeting of Roscommon and Kerry, was broadcast. Tentative and uncertain as the beginning was, a hugely powerful and transformative medium was now offering its hand, for better and for worse. It would create new challenges and opportunities for an Association accustomed to more limited exposure, reared on a high-fibre wholesome diet of radio commentary and the oral tradition.
But from the outset the GAA saw the value of carrying the games to a wider audience. “My own feelings on this matter are that television can, and will, be a great asset to our Association,” Hugh Byrne, GAA president, said in 1962.
The same year Liam O’Neill, aged seven, viewed the first live televised All-Ireland football final in the house of a family friend in Mountrath. He still remembers the snowy black and white coverage and how they had to move the aerial about to improve the reception. The next year he watched the hurling final in a neighbour’s house in Trumera, and was invited back for the football final, cripplingly shy, giddy with excitement.
O’Neill has lived through all the revolutionary changes in the time since and is unrepentant about the position the GAA took eight years ago in moving outside the Pale by selling some of its package to a subscription provider. Despite the sales talk of being motivated by a desire to grow the games overseas and the needs of poor Christy in Cricklewood, there was an obvious element of brinkmanship to the negotiations. It was a move designed to keep RTÉ on its toes.
So they freshened it up and argued that more games were being televised even if you needed a subscription to see those being put aside for Sky. If you didn’t have a subscription already and weren’t prepared to purchase one, there was the pub.
The viewing figures for Sky proved, to say the least, unprepossessing. The Sky entrance did not add much additional lucre to the GAA coffers. And despite Páraic Duffy stating in a book by the journalist Michael Moynihan, ‘GAAconomics’, published the previous year, that Sky and subscription channels were a red line they could not cross, the goalposts had moved.
“We were in the position of having to make a decision in real time,” says O’Neill. “We hadn’t the luxury of looking forward or working out how it was going to go. You had a gut feeling on it. I didn’t know much about Sky at all. I never had Sky, I never bought Sky Sports. Before I became president of the GAA I was deeply involved in the GAA at local level, with my school and club, I didn’t have time to sit down and look at Sky Sports.”
O’Neill wasn’t part of the negotiating team but his position was that if they felt Sky had the best offer he would back it. Sky had been in previous negotiations but there was a reluctance to take that step, fearful of the public reaction. The relationship with RTÉ had often been prickly. When O’Neill was Leinster Council chairman he criticised the national broadcaster, aiming his remarks at pundit Pat Spillane, for what he saw as gratuitously negative commentary on The Sunday Game.
The GAA has often been highly sensitive and controlling about how its message is conveyed, to the point of being overly possessive. It is not difficult to see how a national broadcaster might tire of being held to some kind of moral account. For the various times that their treatment of GAA issues might have been flippant or unfair, there were plenty other occasions, doubtlessly, when the GAA was too much of a big brother figure, overbearing, meddlesome. That tension has always existed.
Only recently the former GAA PRO Danny Lynch, who was involved in successive negotiations in his time in office, a period that saw a rapid escalation in the number of games televised, experienced a moment which made him marvel at how the landscape had changed.
Lynch was unable to get down to his native Kerry to see Dingle (featuring four cousins) play East Kerry in the county semi-finals. His son called over to the house in Dublin, tapped into the streaming service available, paid a tenner and in an instant the match became available with a visual quality undreamt of when Liam O’Neill was gazing in wonderment with all the others in that house in Mountrath in 1962.
The Sky deal was criticised for introducing the element of pay-for-view, through subscription, and contravening the ideals and those of the Association as being about serving its community and not compromising its access to games, but that divergence has become more normalised on the domestic front with the availability of GAAGO during the Covid periods.
County and club games became accessible and the fee-paying stipulation did not cause an outcry. Ironically the GAAGO digital model, a joint enterprise between RTÉ and the GAA, was also unveiled in 2014 when Sky was unveiled as a GAA broadcasting partner. “The GAAGO model is the model under which they GAA will eventually decide to have their own station,” says O’Neill. Sky was unable to grow its share of the market over successive renewals of the rights deal and that has most likely led to the lack of agreement this time.
The fears of Sky extending its influence and making more games available on subscription only were reasonable in 2014 but can now be put to rest. The GAA would have argued at the time and since that it had all the cards. There was no compulsion to extend Sky’s influence. O’Neill, defending the decision, notes the endorsement of the deal at a subsequent Congress, where a motion calling for the deal to be reversed was heavily defeated.
“People said you sold out. But the way the world is gone now, you don’t know who owns what,” O’Neill states. When Lynch started working in Croke Park in 1988 the live television offering was still confined to the All-Ireland semi-finals and final. The first Munster hurling final wasn’t shown live until the following year. In 2007 there was a significant change when TV3 signed a three-year broadcasting deal with the GAA. For the first time senior inter-county championship games were not being broadcast exclusively on RTÉ.
“The late Tim O’Connor was head of sport in RTE at that time,” says Lynch, recalling his time in negotiations, mainly through the 1990s. “Now RTÉ had a monopoly as well; when we were negotiating with them it was like negotiating with two hands tied behind your back. I got talking to Tim. We both agreed that the number of games that were being televised was definitely too little from a promotional point of view. And from an RTÉ perspective as well.”
In the space of a week he loaded up the car with GAA and RTÉ figures and hit the provinces to sell a larger live TV package.
“One of the big carrots put out by Tim O’Connor was that they were going to pay X amount which was money for jam,” says Lynch. “When we went to Munster I remember (council secretary) Donie Nealon said, ‘We will go for this, this is money for jam’. Having said that, there was a certain amount of reluctance on the basis that it would affect attendances.”
Over the years Lynch would keep a vigilant eye on how attentively RTÉ covered Gaelic games, listening in at the end of news bulletins. “I felt that if someone didn’t keep prodding them that complacency would set in and in many cases we weren’t getting a fair shake,” he says.
“There was always a tension there. It came from both sides. RTÉ were trying to get the product for as cheap as they could and trying to produce the product probably as cheap as they could. We were trying to maximise what we could get out of it and we were quite conscious of the quality of what was being produced.
“Tension between entities such as the GAA and RTÉ I suppose is a healthy thing.”
The changing look of the championship was also a driving force with ever more games and a move away from the old knockout format, accelerated by the arrival of the football qualifiers in 2001. That tapped into the potential television could offer in terms of exposure with greater reach and impact.
By the time Lynch left office in 2008 the GAA had up to 50 games being televised live plus additional programme and promotion commitments from broadcasters. “The whole television landscape had changed completely,” as he says.