Saturday 20 January 2018

COMMENT: Having it all free to air is a worthy idea but presence of Sky ensures GAA get best deal possible

Michael Duignan criticised the Sky deal
Michael Duignan criticised the Sky deal
RTE pundit Michael Duignan . Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It's a worthy idea. That an organisation like the GAA, that depends so much on volunteers to function, would provide the best of what it has to offer for nothing.

There are plenty who will agree with Michael Duignan's assertion that all of the GAA's games should be free to air. The logic is simple. The association is by the people and of the people. So there's something discomfiting in asking those same people to fork out to watch the product that comes at the end of it all.

Duignan's example of his own father not being in a position to watch Kilkenny and Waterford last Saturday night because he doesn't subscribe to Sky is a scenario that was repeated all around the country.

And it will be for the rest of the summer. For example, there are 15 games left in the football championship. Sky will have exclusive access to eight of those.

But that was part of the deal when, to much chagrin, the sale of some matches to a subscription channel like Sky was announced.

The deal shone a light on two starkly contrasting sides of the GAA. The corporate money-making end and the part which relies on goodwill and volunteers to survive.

Up to that point, both sides recognised the need for the other, but preferred to maintain an uneasy distance. But that is the GAA as it is today. It's a difficult line to walk.

Last night, Duignan - an RTÉ analyst - and former Monaghan footballer, Sky pundit and columnist with this newspaper Dick Clerkin played out a Twitter discussion which, depending on which side of the fence you're sitting, summed up both arguments quite well.

And yet among all that, we hold the GAA to certain standards. We simultaneously want it to have deep enough pockets to fund a bigger and better tomorrow without selling its soul.

So the naming rights to county grounds can be auctioned but not, so far, Croke Park.

Guinness did loads for the hurling championship with innovative advertising campaigns but considering the amount of younger people involved in the GAA and the role it plays in almost every community in Ireland, being associated with an alcoholic drink didn't sit well.

Guinness were thanked and sent on their way but they remain front and centre in sports like rugby and horse racing.

Likewise bookmakers, who seem to have an endless pot of money to spend on the Premier League and in almost every other sporting code around. The GAA won't entertain it. The FAI have an official betting partner.

The GAA is image conscious in that regard. It ignores some significant revenue streams but didn't ignore the offer from Sky. The powers that be decided at the time it could live with the decision.

At the time of the deal they pointed out that most of the big matches remain free to air and Sky brought the GAA to the British market.

The reaction has been mixed. Some have praised Sky for their different style of analysis. Others have rounded on the usually paltry viewing figures and used them as an example of why getting in bed with them was such a bad idea.

But the most valuable thing about Sky is that it brings another player to what is a very small market. Money talks and their presence and full coffers keeps the likes of RTÉ and TV3 honest. If Sky weren't an option when it came to media rights, how many millions would it cost the GAA?

How much would RTÉ knock off their offer to take the bulk of the matches when the contracts were up for negotiations? And how would that affect the various units that come to Croke Park cap in hand?

The Sky deal didn't suit everyone but the benefits of it weren't ignored. Last year's Congress recognised the need to protect TV revenue and defeated a motion that all games should be free to air by 200 votes to 36.

Congress votes aren't often so straightforward but reality had hit home.

The GAA is expected to financially back hugely ambitious projects around the country to help ensure it can compete for the hearts and minds of the next generation and also held to a standard that other sporting organisations simply aren't.

Still, it thrives. Páirc Uí Chaoimh will open soon. Casement Park is set for a huge redevelopment. Páirc Tailteann in Navan has a facelift in the pipeline.

Numerous state-of-the-art centres of excellence have been built around the country with central assistance.

Croke Park is at the centre of the Rugby World Cup bid along with a handful of other grounds. Nationwide, the standard of facilities has rocketed in the last 20 years.

The GAA has also bailed out struggling county boards and assisted clubs caught in the mire in the economic crash. Players are being looked after like never before through a new bumper deal with the GPA.

It all costs money. Money that is hard to come by when the market is so small. While the Sky deal may fly in the face of the spirit of the organisation, it is a price worth paying in terms of the overall picture.



Subscribe to The Throw-In,'s weekly Championship podcast, for the best in GAA discussion and analysis every Monday, with some of the biggest names in football and hurling from Joe Brolly, Tomás Ó'Sé, Brendan Cummins and John Mullane.

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