Monday 23 April 2018

Tommy Conlon: Nothing to see here as we live in hope of a little bit of blue sky thinking

'It’s way past time this primitive TV coverage was binned. The sliotar should be visible at all times.' Stock photo: Sportsfile
'It’s way past time this primitive TV coverage was binned. The sliotar should be visible at all times.' Stock photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Every summer it's déjà vu all over again, or in the case of the hurling championship, déjà non vu all over again. Yep, it's that time of year when the annual spot-the-ball competition is brought into our homes courtesy of RTé, the GAA and O'Neills, manufacturers of sporting goods since 1918 apparently.

And when it comes to the sliotar, it appears that O'Neills stopped innovating around 1919. The company that enjoyed a monopoly on GAA goods for most of a century has shown all the complacency of an outfit that never had to worry much about competition or customer satisfaction.

And why would you, when it seems that your main client is happy to put up with the same product more or less since time began? It doesn't apparently bother Croke Park that the hurling ball routinely disappears from view for the spectators in the stadium and on television at home. And if it doesn't bother them, it surely won't bother RTé much either.

The national broadcaster, like O'Neills, has also enjoyed long periods of stagnation when it comes to coverage of Gaelic games, only ever getting off its ass in recent times when the prospect of some meaningful competition loomed on the horizon. And even then, it is still content, in 2016, to televise a ball game where said ball continues to vanish right before the eyes of hundreds of thousands of viewers.

And so it was with weary familiarity that we tuned into the Munster semi-final last Sunday for the usual now-you-see-it, now-you-don't experience from the same lazy, apathetic service providers.

It just took 38 seconds for the usual ritual to kick in: a long-range effort, ball sailing high into the air and disappearing somewhere in the ether as the camera person dutifully tracks its imagined trajectory. With nothing but sky for a backdrop, the white ball is camouflaged against the general whiteness while the viewer is left looking at clouds, seagulls and the odd airplane. If the ball has flown between the posts, the first clue will be in audio: the partisan fans greeting its arrival with a rising roar of acclaim. The first visual clue will be the sight of the umpire scurrying for the white flag. It's only then we will know for sure.

And even then of course it might not be definitive, because it is frequently difficult for even well-positioned umpires to know for certain that the tiny orb way above them has drifted between the uprights, or just over an upright, or wide altogether.

But so it goes, game after game, year after year. The shot, the sliotar booming off the hurl, the camera operator having to second-guess its trajectory and duly pan from right to left, or left to right, in a simulation of the flight of the ball.

But never mind, there's always the angle from the behind the goals, right? So, cut to the slow-motion replay, using footage from the camera mounted on a scaffold out the back. Again, clouds, sky, and the church steeple in the distance - but no sign of the ball. All too often, the replays are about as useful as the proverbial tits on a bull.

The 12th minute in Semple Stadium last Sunday. Colm Galvin lets fly from distance. "And that is some puck of a sliotar," declares Marty Morrissey on commentary, "that is some score from way out the field."

We'll have to take your word for it, Marty.

The 37th minute. "A chance here for Pauric Mahony. Oh. My Word. Oh. That was a thing of beauty." Again Marty, we'll have to take your word.

In the 56th, Austin Gleeson swishes an utterly sublime sideline cut all the way over. Again, it's filmed, but it is not captured. It is quite the anti-climax for a viewer, knowing that a brilliant piece of skill has been executed, but not being able to see the fruits of that skill.

The Sunday Game highlights show contained a brief package from the Leinster quarter-finals. An especially fine score from Westmeath's Alan Devine was included in the report. The main camera was on the far side of the pitch in Mullingar. As Devine swung, the camera operator began panning right to left, again vaguely following the anticipated flight of the ball. But for some reason the camera stopped before the goalposts hove into view. Instead we were left with a lingering shot of a few advertising hoardings for Rochforts Superstore, Bus Éireann and Keenan Bauer Motors.

It didn't matter; we wouldn't have seen the ball anyway.

So what to do? Maybe RTé could ask the GAA if the hurling community wouldn't mind swapping the sliotar for a basketball from now on? Or perhaps even a beach ball.

A cursory search online reveals there are all sorts of hi-tech hi-viz commercial paints and compounds available nowadays in the marketplace. If none of these are suitable for the leather, maybe a little bit of scientific innovation might solve the problem. It's called research and development, R&D, a basic component of any business that wants to survive and prosper.

It's way past time this primitive TV coverage was binned. The sliotar should be visible at all times. The three companies in question could have pioneered various prototypes decades ago. A bit of blue-sky thinking might leave us with less sky and more ball when hurling comes out to play.

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