Saturday 20 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: GAA's deal with Sky has not been a spectacular success but a bit of a disaster

'For all the headlines about Gary and Trevor tweeting their approval from the couch in Wokingham, the viewing figures tell a shameful story'
'For all the headlines about Gary and Trevor tweeting their approval from the couch in Wokingham, the viewing figures tell a shameful story'

Eamonn Sweeney

Clare County Board want the GAA to stop giving Sky Sports exclusive rights to championship matches. They have forwarded a motion to this effect to the Association's annual Congress on February 28 in Cavan and it is one which anyone concerned about the future direction of the GAA should support.

Sky probably won't be named in the actual motion which may simply call for all GAA Championship matches being broadcast live to be available on terrestrial channels. But it is the Sky deal that Clare, and Donegal who've declared their support, are talking about. Outgoing GAA president Liam O'Neill believes these counties are in a minority and that, "the Sky component of our media rights deal has worked really spectacularly for the organisation." Mind you he also affects to believe that, "It's not a Sky deal, it's a GAAGO deal."

Nevertheless, a Sky deal is what it is seen to be by most people. And despite O'Neill's somewhat crude veiled warning that, "The motion as it is worded would need to be careful that it doesn't affect what's positive in the entire broadcast deal," Clare aren't proposing the breaking of the current deal. They just want matches to once more be free to viewers when that deal ends in 2017. Sky, as far as Clare are concerned, are welcome to broadcast GAA matches, but there should be an alternative for those who don't have the satellite channel.

It's an eminently reasonable position and I believe that GAA members at local level should put pressure on their own county boards to back Clare. I also believe Donegal isn't the only Ulster county which will do so and that there are other counties who would be well disposed towards the motion if ordinary club members are allowed to have their say.

It's important that they do because a survey by Paul Rouse of UCD revealed last week the reality of the Sky deal for the GAA. Rouse is a brainy guy but, just as importantly, he's a committed GAA man. The GAA - A People's History, which he co-wrote with fellow academic Mike Cronin, is the first book I'd press into the hand of anyone who wanted to really understand the soul of the Association. He's a voice well worth listening to in this debate.

The conclusions reached by Rouse suggest that the deal has not been a spectacular success for the GAA at all, but a bit of a disaster. And, as a former deal supporter, I'd have to say I entirely agree with him.

We'll leave the money aspect aside because that's what the GAA has said it wants people to do. In fact it protested vigorously to the Dáil Committee on Transport and Communications that anyone who said they'd done the deal for money was, "Cynical . . . cynicism has always been the easy refuge of those who are afraid to engage in analysis and reasonable debate."

Well there's plenty of analysis in Rouse's piece on the deal, the full text of which is available on the UCD history department's excellent website, and it should certainly contribute to reasonable debate. It may also leave you with the feeling that it's not the opponents of the deal who are guilty of cynicism.

One of the GAA's stated reasons for entering the deal was to provide coverage for the emigrant community. GAA General Secretary Paraic Duffy stated at the time that 11 million households in Britain had Sky Sports. In fact the figure was actually four million. And another fact is that the emigrant community already had access to GAA games. Premier Sports, part of the Setanta Sports group, provided 100 games a year, not just championship games but all the games shown on TG4, Setanta, TV3 and RTE, for a subscription fee of £10 a month.

Premier's commitment to the GAA also extended to sponsoring Warwickshire GAA. But under the Sky deal they were prevented from showing 20 live games exclusive to that broadcaster, which meant GAA fans in Britain had to pay an extra subscription. Because of the Sky deal the GAAGO service is only available on a reduced basis to the largest emigrant community of all, the one in Britain.

As Rouse points out, "Ultimately, when you take away the rhetoric of serving emigrants what you are left with is the provision of a service that was already available but was now fragmented, and now cost at least three times the established price."

Another reason advanced by the GAA for the Sky deal was that it would provide international exposure for the games. But for all the headlines about Gary and Trevor tweeting their approval from the couch in Wokingham, the viewing figures tell a shameful story. The average number of viewers in Britain for GAA games on Sky was 32,000. The peak figure was 104,000 for the All-Ireland hurling final. This was shown on Sky Sports 1 on a Sunday afternoon in a slot which normally commands 1 to 1.8 million viewers. Nine out of ten British viewers, it seems, went out of their way not to watch Gaelic games.

The GAA's annual report painted a picture of British GAA clubs being flooded with potential new members enthralled with what they'd seen on Sky. This struck me as fanciful and indeed Rouse reports that county board officials, club officials and club players he spoke to in London and Manchester reported no such influx.

Viewing figures here at home were similarly awful. And this is important because the GAA expressed confidence that those who wanted to watch the games screened exclusively on Sky would somehow be able to do so. It didn't work out that way. The Dublin-Monaghan football quarter-final attracted just 54,000 compared to the 442,800 who watched the quarter-final on TV3 the previous year. Only 35,200 viewers got to see the classic Tipperary-Galway hurling championship match while 18,000 people tuned in to watch Wexford play Dublin in the hurling championship on a Saturday afternoon. Later that night 358,900 tuned in to watch those traditional Irish favourites, Uruguay and Costa Rica meet in the World Cup on RTE. In the words of Paul Rouse, "In the summer of a World Cup, the GAA chose to put its games in the darkest corner of the room."

I was a supporter of the Sky deal but, as the great British economist John Maynard Keynes said, "When my information changes I alter my conclusions. What do you do?" I hope I'm wrong but I suspect Croke Park may try the time-honoured tactic of trying to quash the Clare motion through some piece of procedural jiggery-pokery. But O'Neill's implication that scuppering the Sky deal could adversely affect the GAAGO deal is nonsense. For one thing RTE, who are the GAA's partner in GAAGO, are unlikely to stand in the way of the Association disentangling itself from Sky.

From a pragmatic point of view the deal has been a disaster. And I've also come round to the position that it's been a moral disaster as well. There really are plenty of people out there who can't afford Sky and who won't go to the pub to watch games. The viewing figures for last year's exclusive broadcasts show that beyond doubt.

Pointing to the money simply isn't good enough. The GAA is not a professional organisation and can only operate at the level it does because inter-county players and club members do an enormous amount of work for nothing. Top GAA officials like to say that the government can never give the Association enough money to repay it for the good it has done in Irish society. But it's also true that Croke Park can never pay the players or the ordinary club members enough for the contribution they've made. The very least they can do is ensure that anyone who wants to watch a championship game is able to do so.

The Sky deal was a classic modern day Croke Park deal, struck in secret and presented as a fait accompli to the membership. Unless the members, through the medium of a vote at Congress, can have their say on the deal it is frankly undemocratic. And if the GAA is not democratic, it is nothing. That is why the Clare motion deserves the support of all right-thinking people.

Last week Sky showed their continuing rapacity by wresting the British Open away from the BBC. And they haven't just signed up the GAA in order to screen a few qualifiers and get trounced on All-Ireland finals day by RTE. Their vision is of some Croke Park suit announcing that the GAA has given exclusive rights to the 2020 All-Ireland hurling final to Sky and saying what a great boost this is to the organisation's international profile.

If you don't want to see that, now is the time to speak up. There's no point in complaining when it's too late to make any difference.


Doyle's honesty earns its reward

I remember the first time I saw Eoin Doyle in action. It was about five years ago and he was trying to cut in along the end-line in The Showgrounds. Next thing a big defender came in with a tackle which sent the ball flying and left Doyle in a crumpled heap behind the goal. Two minutes later, Doyle was making the same kind of run and meeting the same kind of resistance.

My mother expressed the worry that this new lad might meet serious harm.

That first cameo illustrated three key things about Eoin Doyle. He was so slight when he joined Sligo Rovers as an unheralded cast-off from Shamrock Rovers that you flinched every time he was tackled. He did not find things easy, there was no dazzling footwork to bring him past the defender. But, above anything else, he was willing, a player who never shirked work or pulled out of a challenge, one of those guys who is so honest it becomes almost a moving experience to watch him in action. You couldn't help feeling affection for this lad as he strove to get the very best out of himself and for his team.

And last week Doyle was rewarded with a £1m-plus transfer from Chesterfield to Cardiff City which brings him into the Championship and also, one imagines, into the international reckoning. I cannot think of the last time I felt so pleased to see an Irish player prosper cross-channel.

And prosper Doyle certainly has this season, his 21 goals from 27 league games makes him not just the top scorer in League One, but also the top scorer in all four divisions. One of his two closest rivals, on 18 goals, is Championship top scorer, and another League of Ireland old boy, Daryl Murphy at Ipswich Town.

Five years ago there were probably 40 or 50 League of Ireland players who'd have been regarded as better prospects to make it in England than Eoin Doyle. Six or seven of his Sligo Rovers team-mates would have been among them. He spent his first season and a half on the wing for Rovers under manager Paul Cook and did not always make the team.

Yet when centre-forward Matthew Blinkhorn was suspended for the 2010 FAI Cup final against Shamrock Rovers, Doyle was pressed into service in the unaccustomed position. He performed so well that he began the following season there and finished it as not just the league's leading scorer but the top scorer for Rovers ever in a league season.

A move to Hibernian in the Scottish Premier League followed but it's only since being reunited with Cook at Chesterfield that Doyle has really blossomed. Cardiff, currently in mid-table under manager Russell Slade, offer a new challenge. Their current roster of strikers already includes former Sunderland star Kenwyne Jones and ex-Manchester United wunderkind Federico Macheda.

That Doyle has become one of the handful of players from the League to have made a significant mark cross-channel in recent times proves the truth of an adage coined by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus around 2,500 years ago. It remains one of the wisest things ever said about the human condition.

Character is destiny.


How Big Balls Pete threw it all away

It was probably the worst play call in the history of the Super Bowl. In fact, given what was at stake, it may well have been the worst play call in the history of American football. Even the man who made it, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, has admitted that it was, "the worst result of a call ever". Which given that sport is all about results pretty much amounts to the same thing.

With 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks trailed the New England Patriots 28-24. They had the ball on the Patriots' one-yard line with three downs left to get it into the end zone. And they had Marshawn Lynch.

Lynch has led the NFL in rushing touchdowns for the past two seasons and had already run one in from three yards in the second quarter. It seemed impossible that the Patriots would stop him three times in a row. One TV commentator was even suggesting that New England get it over with and let Lynch score so that their quarterback Tom Brady might have a few seconds left in possession afterwards.

But Seattle did not give the ball to Lynch. Instead Carroll got quarterback Russell Wilson to throw the ball to wide receiver Ricardo Lockette. At which point Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler stepped in to intercept. Game over.

Chances are that when Carroll retires he will be remembered not as the man who brought the Seahawks their first ever Super Bowl victory in 2014 but as the man who made a call which still seems to utterly defy logic. It was like Jimmy Barry-Murphy ordering Anthony Nash to play a 21-yard free backwards so someone could have a shot from further out the field.

As coach at the University of Southern California, the Seahawks boss earned the nickname Big Balls Pete for his willingness to take risks. He couldn't have made a bigger balls of things than he did last week.

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