Martin Breheny: GAA Congress may sleepwalk into seriously bad TV rights deal
This is the week when many counties will decide whether to experiment with sleepwalking, while their hands are tied behind their backs.
It's not immediately apparent why anyone would risk such a foolish manoeuvre but the invitation to try it features in black and white on the agenda for the GAA Congress in Carlow on the weekend after next.
Most county boards discuss the motions in the run-up to Congress, which makes this week very important as delegates will be mandated on how to vote on various issues.
Among them is a call from Dublin to create a rule which would confine live TV coverage of the All-Ireland championships exclusively to free-to-air channels. Kerry passed a similar motion at their Convention last December.
In simple terms, that means no more deals with Sky Sports when the current arrangement expires at the end of this year.
RTE, TV3, and UTV Ireland (TG4 will probably be happy to retain their extensive portfolio outside the senior championships) would love to see Congress introduce such a restrictive rule as it would, effectively, hand the GAA's big summer/autumn action over to them, without any challenge from Sky, who entered the market in 2014.
Now, the laws of economics are pretty straightforward: the market decides price. So if the GAA literally rules itself out of dealing with Sky, it will allow RTE and TV3 to carve up championship coverage between them for a much smaller sum than if a subscription channel were bidding.
So why reduce your options, when the inevitable outcome is lower income and, by extension, less to share among the many GAA units that need funding. At the very least, leave subscription channels in the mix, if only to keep the others honest.
The argument against having Sky aboard is that the viewing public have to pay a subscription if they want to see the 14 'live' games allocated to the broadcaster in 2014-'16 share-out.
RTE have exclusive access to 25 games while both channels have the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. That brings RTE's total to 31, the same as under the previous agreement, when TV3, rather than Sky, had the smaller package.
RTE led the opposition to Sky's arrival two years ago. Their coverage was nothing short of disgraceful, bouncing on a self-serving wagon and telling sad tales of how lonely, isolated rural-dwellers were being denied the opportunity to watch their county.
It was presented as a national scandal, worthy of extensive coverage for days. Shamefully, balance was dispensed with in favour of a hysterical over-reaction, where the station's sense of entitlement was overwhelming. Happily for RTE, their views were well-represented in the print media too, where some of their 'Sunday Game' analysts had columns. Surprise, surprise, they too were suitably outraged on behalf of the so-called dispossessed!
And then there were the self-important zealots who appear to have ideological objections to dealing with Sky, even if it were free-to-air.
Obviously, it's in everybody's interest to have as much sport as possible free-to-air but why would the GAA even consider being the only organisation to wipe out bargaining power by introducing a rule which would prevent it from even talking to subscription channels?
If that happens, RTE, TV3 etc can drive down the market as low as they wish because no real opposition will be allowed to bid.
How then can voting for a 'Sky out' proposal make sense for counties, who receive a handsome share-out of revenues raised at central level?
Media rights, much of which involves TV coverage, yielded €11.3 million last year, a substantial figure by any standards.
Rest assured that if the GAA votes to clip its own bargaining wings on Saturday week, that figure will be considerably less in a few years' time. No one is disputing that the Sky deal impacted on some GAA fans. However, it's also a fact that several counties got little coverage in the pre-Sky days.
In fact, ten counties received only five per cent of the 'live' coverage in the preceding five years while 19 counties got less than 25 per cent between them.
That didn't get much air time on 'Liveline' but then maybe nobody wanted to talk to Joe about it. Of course, they might not have got such a sympathetic ear as those who complained when Sky dared to enter the GAA arena. Also, where were the bleeding hearts when the 2011-'14 deal reduced the 'live' schedule by 10 games over the previous three years?
It dropped from 50 to 40, impacting on fans from several counties, yet it got very little attention. Big bad Sky couldn't be blamed for the cut, since they weren't involved at the time.
If Congress inserts a rule which precludes dealing with any subscription channel, it will be one of the daftest moves by any sporting organisation for a very long time. By all means, ensure that the vast majority of championship games are on free-to-air TV but don't cut out other channels altogether. How about returning to the 50-game schedule (five more than now, 10 more than 2012-'14), increasing the options available for the various interested channels?
Demanding that all coverage be confined to free-to-air is one thing, but writing it into rule is altogether different. Surely Congress won't make the mistake of thinking otherwise.