Sunday 21 July 2019

Comment: Three Brits playing hurling at half-time shows how far we've come - but Sky Sports' involvement in GAA is a bad thing

A League of Their Own stars Jamie Redknapp, Freddie Flintoff and Rob Beckett were at Nowlan Park on Saturday
A League of Their Own stars Jamie Redknapp, Freddie Flintoff and Rob Beckett were at Nowlan Park on Saturday
Amy Molloy

Amy Molloy

Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp was one of my favourite Liverpool players as a young girl, but he won't be featuring on my list of top hurlers any time soon. Watching him and England cricketer Freddie Flintoff try score against goalkeeping legend Damien Fitzhenry at half-time in Nowlan Park on Saturday was the latest attempt by Sky to show how they're embracing our 'bonkers' national sport.

The term 'bonkers' has been used by many people in the UK on Twitter ever since hurling was introduced to their TV screens. Look at those mad Irish people running around a field with sticks, bless them.

Donning Kilkenny jerseys and socks pulled up to their knees DJ Carey style, Redknapp and Co competed in the challenge for Sky's 'A League of Their Own'.

I know the half-time shoot out was all a bit of light-hearted entertainment. A Kilkenny fan enjoying a cup of tea at the interval summed it up well: "Jaysus lads, if three English lads had stepped foot on that pitch thirty years ago, the place would have been burned to the ground."

His observation was met by laughter from those around him. And sure, it's nice to see how much relations between the two islands have improved, maybe Queen Elizabeth will have a go against Fitzy at the next game.

However, I don't think the British broadcaster being involved with GAA is necessarily a good thing - and here's why.

A large proportion of old school football fans in England will tell you that Sky Sports stole the soul of the game they love. Before 1992, they could go to a game without needing to remortgage their house. For them, Sky gave birth to generation armchair fan - or the prawn sandwich brigade, as Roy Keane would call them.

Television money being pumped into the sport led to the inflation of ticket prices and, arguably, the cost of the players themselves. It also caused the Premier League to become a global phenomenon. That has its merits, of course. But do we want our national sport going down the same route? Will Sky eventually be what pushes GAA into professional territory? Will our hurlers be showing up to Croke Park on All-Ireland day dressed in hideous white suits? Is Michael Lyster going to be replaced by Chris Kamara?

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Considering his commentary on last year's All-Ireland final, one would think not.

Kamara and fellow Sky presenter Jeff Stelling travelled around Ireland last year educating themselves on all things GAA in what was a publicity masterstroke by the organisation and AIB, who sponsored the initiative. All a bit of fun, of course, but also rather patronising. The rules of GAA aren't that hard to grasp, so the whole 'watch these non-Irish people try understand this wacky sport' act is getting a bit tiresome.

What I really fear, though, is Sky getting a say in GAA games down the line. This year they will show a total of 20 live games. But how long will it be before they start dictating throw-in times?

Based on the statement they released last night after the farcical decision to not show the first 22 minutes of the Kilkenny and Wexford due to the Meath and Tyrone game going to extra time, not very long.

"We appreciate the frustration felt by fans today and we will be taking all necessary steps going forward to ensure that broadcasting clashes, like the one that happened today, does not occur again," the statement said.

Both games were scheduled to be shown live on Sky Sports Arena and Sky Sports Main Event.

However, "Our channel Sky Sports Main Event is not a second channel. Sky Sports Main Event is set up to mirror what we show on our other sports channels and today we chose to showcase the GAA matches on Sky Sports Main Event," a Sky spokesperson said.

The decision also shows a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the hurling game on Sky's part, considering it was a crunch game deciding who would face Galway in the Leinster hurling final.

The Premier League has sold its television rights for a record €8bn and essentially gave broadcasters all the power in doing so. Sky tells the Premiership what time kick-off is now, and they don't seem too concerned about the thousands of football fans who have to get up at 4am in the morning to travel the length of the country for a game starting at 12.45pm in the afternoon.

That's one of the good things about the new round robin hurling format, at least. The increased number of games means there's not enough TV channels to show them all, so fans are more likely to head to a match that isn't scheduled for a ridiculous time.

It would pain me to see the GAA head down the same route as the Premiership.

I'm a Liverpool fan myself, but my love for football has seriously waned in recent years. Having to spend up to €300 to go watch the team you support kind of takes the good out of it. Attending a game in Croke Park isn't cheap either, but at least the players haven't yet been morally and financially corrupted with huge pay packets. Football in England went from being a working class sport to a sport the working class can no longer afford - and hurling and Gaelic football are at risk of falling down the same costly slope.

GAA is adored by thousands on this island due to its raw passion and amateur charm, and I feel Sky's involvement is going to jeopardise that.

Their attempts to integrate soccer stars with our players is quite foreboding. And just like Damien Fitzhenry showed Jamie Redknapp who's boss yesterday, the GAA needs to review Sky's involvement and prioritise the sport, not their pockets.

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