Croker must share blame for RTE void
The merits of John Costello's broadside against RTE's year-round GAA coverage earlier this week, in his report to Dublin's annual convention, can hardly be disputed.
From the third week in September to the second or third week in May, not a single minute of live Gaelic games will be screened by the national broadcaster, and not a word of English commentary on a live game will be heard on a free-to-air channel for almost eight months of the year.
That's not a new development and it should not be a surprise to anyone who follows our national games. RTE's devotion to live GAA coverage in these months has never been historically strong.
Apart from the International Rules in October and November and the club finals on St Patrick's Day, live broadcasts in the past didn't exist, not even for the league finals.
Into that vacuum has come TG4, who have anchored their sports coverage around Sunday afternoons at various club and county grounds during the months when RTE officially 'switches off'.
The proliferation of live soccer and rugby games to be aired on RTE over the next few years has crept up almost unnoticed on some GAA officials, who were reportedly alarmed to read the stark reality of how the association's oldest and biggest broadcast partner will screen more live rugby and soccer games in 2011 than Gaelic football and hurling matches combined.
Costello's comments, then, are surely symptomatic of the general GAA reaction around the country.
With a Magners League package in place in addition to the 15 Six Nations games, a host of November Internationals and AIL semi-finals and finals, the number of live rugby games being broadcast will be close to 50 this season.
As the number of Airtricity League matches being covered live rise from 15 to 28 in 2012 andm with FAI Cup semi-finals and a final also being shown, live domestic coverage will rise to 30 games before international matches and Champions League games are factored in.
When the Irish Independent sought figures from RTE for the number of rugby, soccer and GAA matches being shown live in 2010 and 2011, the press office replied that more time would be required to collate it. Clearly, it is not the kind of information they are keen to place in the public domain.
But if GAA officials are alarmed and concerned about the dearth of live matches being shown by RTE throughout the year in comparison to other rival sports, then it has to look at its own role in how that situation has evolved.
For many years now, the GAA have been striving to create a market for their product. In successive reports to Congress, the former director-general Liam Mulvihill openly craved a situation where competition could develop to limit the Association's dependency on RTE and, more importantly, drive up revenue.
The balance sheets show that the strategy has worked. Almost €30m was signed off for the last three-year deal and, with only a marginal drop for significantly less games announced last month, media rights are still a healthy earner. In that climate, RTE has had to cut its cloth to fit its budget.
The cost of buying GAA rights has risen substantially. The Association, with the help of a London-based company skilled in broadcast negotiating rights, has 'packaged' its product for optimum effect.
If that squeezes out RTE in terms of price, then that's a consequence the GAA are happy to exist with.
With only a limited package of league fixtures on offer, RTE saw little point in diversifying into league activity as well. There is a reality here, however, that is worth considering for the GAA. Viewing figures consistently show that even highlights packages on RTE will be higher than on other channels' packages.
Two years ago, the 125th anniversary committee of the GAA made contact with RTE in relation to showing the Dublin v Tyrone NFL opener at Croke Park only to discover that the rights were with Setanta.
So the game was shown on Setanta to a far smaller audience than the committee would have desired. A highlights package later on in the night on RTE attracted far higher viewing figures.
It has to be a concern for the future that the national broadcaster is being fed crumbs in the off-season and appears quite happy with the diet.
That's not the fault of TG4, which has comfortably found its niche away from the fast lane of the championship, and its package of games is thorough and well presented.
Between county finals, provincial and All-Ireland club matches, two International Rules Tests, Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup games, National League finals, U-21 championships and four colleges finals, TG4 could see their current schedule of 51 games in 2010 increase to the mid-50s with the addition of midweek college games in 2011.
On top of that, there are 20 ladies games being shown. That's quite a service.
Costello's other point about a magazine programme is a valid one. His contention that there should be something aired on a weekly basis is likely to be addressed in the coming year as part of the new deal.
But on the substantive issue of live matches, it's not all the fault of RTE. Could the GAA not create an alternative live rights package for the league for the national broadcaster if there is alarm at the increase in coverage of rival sports?
And what about the International Rules series, which was lost by RTE to TG4 for economic reasons, too?
The GAA have created a market for others to enter and the value of that has held its own. But the association must live with the consequences of that commercial reality or change the terms.