Monday 23 September 2019

Comment: Early-season fan furore puts pressure on GAA to increase the number of live games on TV

Ard Stiúrthóir of the GAA Tom Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ard Stiúrthóir of the GAA Tom Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last April, when Tom Ryan conducted his first media interviews since his appointment as the GAA's new director-general, he indicated that there would be no change to the 'nuts and bolts' of the existing TV arrangement.

That deal sees RTÉ have the rights to broadcast 31 games and Sky Sports with another 14 exclusive to them for a five-year period, between 2017 and 2021.

Six of RTÉ's 31 games (All-Ireland football and hurling semi-finals) are also shown by Sky Sports.

"We're going to stick with the existing structure of things," said Ryan.

"We're happy with how the arrangement has worked up to now and we're not looking at changing the nuts and bolts of the arrangement until that comes up for renewal."

Last weekend the full impact of that decision was felt when the Tyrone/Monaghan game in Omagh's Healy Park was not broadcast live, leading to frustration expressed by potential viewers everywhere.

Two of the top six Gaelic football teams in a provincial quarter-final not being shown was the reality of a new landscape where the number of games in a GAA championship has increased by 15 but the number of games being broadcast live has stood still.

In 2017, 45 of the 82 football and hurling games (excluding replays) were shown by either of the two rights holders, this year it's 45 from 97 over one less weekend (16 by comparison to 17 in 2017), making it a much more congested field for the broadcasters to negotiate.

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Naturally, the provincial football championships were going to suffer in the face of such strong competition from the newly-conceived round-robin hurling championships.

In 2017, RTÉ and Sky Sports covered 12 of the 25 provincial football games prior to the four finals, just under half.

This year it's down to three from the same 25-game schedule, or 12pc of the total.

It's a wipe-out that will potentially hit county boards further down the line if the exposure for local sponsors is limited in that way.

It's a small point but one worth noting nonetheless in the context of elitism that prefaces some GAA commentary these days.

In contrast, 12 of the 20 provincial hurling games will be covered live by one or the other on Saturday evening or Sunday while all 12 football quarter-finals, or 'Super 8' games will also be available to armchair viewers.

Within the relative straightjacket of the same number of games within a far bigger and better field, the broadcasters have had to choose carefully to strike a balance and, naturally, the weighting has been towards the more novel and ultimately higher-profile games that more people will want to see.

It's hard to argue with the choices, though Tyrone/Monaghan slipped through the net while the visit of the Cork footballers to Thurles to face Tipperary in a Munster semi-final will also be missed.

But up to the finals, which will all be shown live, there'll be full coverage of just a Leinster football semi-final of Dublin or Wicklow vs Meath or Longford and an Ulster semi-final between Monaghan and Fermanagh and the Mayo/Galway game that has already been played.

The thinking behind holding the number of broadcast games at the same level as last year, despite the increase, may be to assess impacts on attendances and the trends of supporters.

The support base in four counties - Tipperary, Waterford, Offaly and Wexford - is being challenged to travel four weeks running, the rest have four games in five weekends to decide where and when they want to go.

In football, three games in four weeks for eight counties, seven in nine if you make All-Ireland quarter-finals from a first-round qualifier, presents a similar challenge.

By not throwing more live games into the mix the GAA may be better able to assess the impact on crowds from year to year.

But had Ryan announced last April that the Association would be increasing the number of live games to complement a busier, more compressed schedule, they'd be facing a different, criticism now - that the move towards expanded hurling and football championships was only about money anyway and by increasing TV games they were increasing revenues.

Now that the reaction to the absence of so much live football from the TV screens so early in the season has been gauged, it might be easier to agree an expanded schedule next year without the money-making accusations flying their way.

Last year's deal allowed for 55pc of matches to be televised live by RTÉ or Sky Sports.

Apply that percentage to the new championship fixtures schedule and that's 53 games, an increase of eight, more than enough to accommodate the gaping holes in this year's programme of games.

Any review of the existing schedule within the framework of the current agreements with broadcasters is likely to come to the same conclusion.

Absence clearly makes the heart grow fonder if last weekend's reaction, and indeed the reaction over the first three weekends, is anything to gauge by.

Irish Independent

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