Wednesday 25 April 2018

John Greene: GAA’s view of future not blocked by pay wall

Association choosing sense over sentiment in face of Sky deal objections

Two main things influenced the GAA’s deal with Sky: Money and the ‘what-if’ factor
Two main things influenced the GAA’s deal with Sky: Money and the ‘what-if’ factor
John Greene

John Greene

Sky’s second season of GAA championship coverage will begin in just under four weeks’ time in either Portlaoise or Tullamore, when the winners of next weekend’s Carlow and Laois game take on Kildare in a Leinster senior football championship quarter-final. This is the first of 20 football and hurling games to be broadcast on Sky over the ensuing 15 weeks.

Twelve months on there is no evidence that the controversy around the GAA’s decision to award 20 games a year — 14 of which are exclusive — to Sky on a three-year deal is abating. Over the winter months there was strident criticism of the GAA on this issue, including from Sunday Independent columnists Joe Brolly, Colm O’Rourke and Eamonn Sweeney.

A few months back, Brolly wrote: “As the games are eased off free-to-air TV and put behind a pay wall, the lifeblood of the Association can console themselves with the fact that UK Tweeters are having a laugh.”

The academic and historian Paul Rouse published a paper entitled ‘Sports Rights Commercialisation: Sky and the GAA’ in which he challenged the benefits of the deal. “There are questions around how an organisation which justifiably makes so much of its commitment to being community-based, to being open to all, to being inclusive, should choose a broadcasting policy which is, in part, inimical to those aims,” he wrote. “How can you profess the values that the GAA professes and at the same time sell exclusive rights to a broadcaster that is subscribed to by just one-in-six of the population of Ireland?”

The debate around Sky’s presence on the GAA landscape is a complex and layered one. It brings in history, tradition, money, community values, rural life, but at its heart is the principle of the GAA’s amateur ethos. Should the GAA have put games played by amateurs behind a pay wall? And it is this fundamental principle which has been at the core of objections to the deal: Should there be 14 championship games televised on a channel which is not free to air to the population? Just last week, a neighbour said she would never agree with it. “It’s the slippery slope,” she said, “to professionalism.”

There is a lot of emotive language around this issue, but Rouse has underpinned his opposition with research and data which suggested that far fewer people had watched the games here on Sky than on TV3, who previously had the rights. Furthermore, he said, for those watching in the UK, the cost of following the football and hurling championships had increased as a result of the deal.

The GAA was rattled by the criticism, Sky less so. But then the GAA botched the original announcement. There was a lack of clarity in their explanation in doing a deal with Sky given repeated assertions in previous years that it would not happen.

The GAA has become a hugely successful commercial organisation with a sophisticated attitude to using its resources to generate massive revenues, which in turn are dispersed through the organisation to keep it going, and growing. Given how commercial the GAA has become, it is interesting that this was the deal that proved the tipping point, perhaps suggesting there is more to the opposition than simple resistance to a particular form of broadcasting. But if the majority of members accept the GAA’s commercial arm is, if you like, a necessary evil, where do you then draw the line?

Any analysis of the deal with Sky must surely conclude that there were two factors which influenced the GAA: the first was money; the second was the sense of experiment with the pay tv platform, the ‘what if’ factor.

In the last round of rights, 2011-2013 the GAA, as it had been accustomed to doing, limited the number of games to be shown live. At that time, it allowed 40 games to be shown, 31 on RTé, and just nine on TV3. In 2010, 50 games were shown live on free-to-air television, so that represented a 20 per cent reduction. This year, 31 games will be shown on free-to-air, and 14 on Sky. Added to the mix is GAAGO, which will show over 40 games live, and more in highlights packages.

Nobody seriously thinks that the GAA’s relationship with RTé will change much in the medium term, or that the GAA will turn its back on free-to-air television, or that the majority of televised championship games won’t be freely available to the widest possible number of television viewers in Ireland. At the same time, the nature of broadcasting is evolving all the time and the GAA needs to be sensible in preparing for the future. Hence GAAGO, and perhaps even the deal with Sky. Who knows, in the next round of rights from 2017 there may be further developments in how the GAA arranges to have its games shown.

The traditional television market in Ireland, and in most countries, is facing its biggest challenge ever. RTé does not have the financial muscle to compete against Sky — nor does the BBC or ITV for that matter. Sky, after all, could afford a new £5.136bn Premier League deal, or a staggering £10m per game.

Through all the changes to broadcasting and media in general, sport remains a powerful asset because it is the one constant — a live sporting event will still command a live audience, and is less likely to be viewed on the various catch-up platforms now on offer. This gives live sport a valuable currency in modern broadcasting and explains in part Sky’s hunger for it.

Still, the GAA and Sky may seem an odd fit when you look at the array of sports — and in particular big-money sports like soccer, rugby, American football, T20 cricket, golf, etc — but the broadcaster doesn’t see it that way. The Head of Production at Sky Sports, Steve Smith, remains enthusiastic about its championship coverage, despite the criticism, and the low viewing figures regularly quoted.

“The GAA on the Sky Sports platform has been very powerful for the Sky Sports brand in Ireland and I hope that continues,” he says. “If you look through social media channels the feedback is split. But a lot of that feedback is based on the fact that it’s free to air or it’s not to free to air, rather than on the quality of the production.

“I think a lot of the positive feedback came from the quality of the Sky Sports production that we were putting together and that’s the thing that I’m very proud of.”

Ciarán O’Hara, who produces Sky’s GAA coverage having formerly done likewise for TV3, believes the full picture tends to be overlooked. “Often there is a misperception of what the pay tv business is,” he says.

“The letters we hear most often are P, P and V and actually that doesn’t apply to the service we offer, which is a subscription service. If you’re a subscriber to Sky Sports you get the benefit of all the sports, pay-per-view in the strictest sense is the purchase of an event. It tends to be a box-office one-off event so I think that’s how the debate gets skewed. Everybody talks about an inordinate amount of money that’s supplied for one-off but actually if you are a Sky Sports subscriber you get the benefit of every sport that’s being shown on the channel.”

O’Hara does not think of the debate in terms of RTé versus Sky, and insists that “there is a space for public service television” and that “there is room for sport there”. He says it’s important to find “a balance within the market that accommodates both pay tv and public service television, and I think that balance is pretty good at the moment”.

He adds: “It maybe isn’t as strong as it is in other countries but the benefit to sport generally in Ireland is pretty good because of that competition that exists between public service, commercial and pay tv.”

The question is, when the next rights offer arrives at the end of 2016, what will the GAA’s position be? Sky will not comment on its plans beyond this three-year deal, but given the level of investment so far and the determination it has shown in developing its GAA coverage, it seems obvious that it would like to extend the current deal.

“We have a lot of Irish sport on Sky Sports and we always look to balance our portfolio for our customers in all our different territories,” says Smith, who describes Ireland as “an area of priority” for the broadcaster. Certainly, the recruitment of Jim McGuinness and JJ Delaney signals intent on Sky’s part.

By the time the deal expires in September 2016 some will have been won over by the coverage, or have softened their views with time in the changing media landscape which is challenging traditional attitudes to television viewing, but it will still be a matter of conscience for many objectors.

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