Thursday 22 March 2018

Game over for free TV sport as the costs Sky rocket

With rugby, GAA and golf moving to subscription channels, is free-to-air sport doomed in the age of the €7 billion Premier League?

Tommy O'Donnell, Ireland, breaks through the Italian defence on his way to scoring his side's second try of the game. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Italy v Ireland. Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy. Picture: Brendan Moran
Tommy O'Donnell, Ireland, breaks through the Italian defence on his way to scoring his side's second try of the game. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Italy v Ireland. Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy. Picture: Brendan Moran
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

On a cold February Saturday in 1990, householders in Ireland could turn on their television sets at noon, press the RTE button, sit back and watch six hours of sport.

On Sports Stadium, on the national network, the viewer was treated to basketball, badminton, GAA, swimming, a hefty dose of racing from Punchestown, and the centrepiece of the afternoon: a league match between Chelsea and Manchester United live from Stamford Bridge. It was heyday of free-to-air live sport.

On Sundays, the hundreds of thousands of viewers who received UTV south of the border could watch another live match in the First Division - the equivalent of the Premier League. These were the days before Sky came in and bought up the rights

The top golf tournaments, the Masters and the Open, and other majors were aired on RTE. Almost everybody watched the Grand National, FA cup matches and Wimbledon on the national channel.

RTE picked up these sports for what now seems like peanuts. Twenty-five years on, the scene has changed utterly.

This week, it was announced that Sky and BT Sport have spent a stunning €7 bn to buy the rights for Premier League football, splashing out an average of €13.5 million per game to the football authorities.

With the fees for TV stations rocketing Skywards, there was even speculation that we may soon enter the era of the €500,000-per-week footballer.

Rugby and GAA are gradually moving away from the free-to-air channels, and recently, the rugby authorities hinted that they might even sell that holy-of-holies, the Six Nations tournament. For the ordinary sports fan, it would be the end of an event that heralds springtime as much as the blooming of daffodils.

The Six Nations chief executive, Dubliner John Feehan, has revealed that offers from alternative broadcasters will be considered when the existing deal with the BBC expires in 2017.

"There is interest from every broadcaster in the UK for live rights," Feehan says.

"The incumbent are the BBC and we are very happy with that arrangement, but obviously we have to keep everybody honest." That, presumably, applies to RTE.

This week, it was quietly announced that Ireland's series of internationals against Wales, Scotland and England before the World Cup will not be shown on RTE. While the Six Nations authorities would be heavily criticised if they sold up, even a community organisation like the GAA was tempted by Rupert Murdoch's lucre, selling the rights to 20 matches last year. So, anything is possible.

The decision to sell a number of live GAA games to Sky has sparked a grassroots revolt in the organisation, and clubs have put down motions at congress calling for all broadcast games to be free-to-air.

Pat Daly, former club chairman of Éire Óg in Ennis, Co Clare, tells Weekend Review: "The Sky money may be seen as useful to promote the games, but the ordinary GAA fan is being excluded.

"These are the people who pay €10 to go matches week after week. Most people in the country don't have Sky and not everyone wants to go to the pub to watch it. This affects community spirit, particularly in rural areas."

The GAA has always argued that the sale of its games to Sky was not just about money, but also international exposure. Sky is bring hurling and football into homes across Britain.

The sporting organisations face a dilemma when deciding whether to sell their rights to Sky or other subscription channels. On the one hand, they welcome the extra revenue, but on the other hand, their audiences inevitably plummet.

Paul Moran, whose company Mediaworks analyses TV audiences, says: "It can be a dangerous game to play when the sports bodies don't go for a mainstream terrestrial channel.

"If you sell your broadcast rights to a satellite channel, your audience will be greatly reduced and this can have two damaging effects.

Firstly, in pure commercial terms, your sponsor will not get the same level of exposure, and that will hit you commercially. The sport will lose out in terms of engaging with its audience, and that is its bread and butter.

"If the GAA decided tomorrow it wasn't going with RTE, it would be a ridiculous decision. The same would be true of rugby or soccer."

The biggest loss for terrestrial viewers in recent months has been the British Open. It used to be shown on RTE, as well as the BBC.

It was a mainstay of the summer schedules, and there are many stories of future champions taking up clubs and hacking balls around their local pitch n putt course after watching Jack Nicklaus or Greg Norman storming down the fairways.

RTE stopped showing the Open some years ago, and it will disappear from BBC screens in 2017.

Ireland may have enjoyed a period of unprecedented success in golf in the past decade, with players such as Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington, but the sport is also suffering a decline in popularity. Some critics suggest that it has pushed itself into a satellite TV ghetto and shut the door.

A collapse in the British audience is inevitable when the Open moves from the BBC to Sky, judging by the audiences for big events last year.

Up to 5.5 million people watched Rory McIlroy win the Open on the BBC last year, confirming his status as the world's greatest golfer.

Sky went to enormous lengths to promote its blue riband golf event - the Ryder Cup. The audience peaked at 1.74m.

The fall in audience for the GAA matches covered by Sky has been even more marked.

The GAA has boasted that the "Sky component of our media rights deal has worked really spectacularly for the organisation".

Sky has also indicated that having GAA rights helped them to stop subscribers drifting away in the summer when the Premier League is in its off season.

The GAA historian Paul Rouse of UCD has studied the figures for a recent paper and has found that the audience is decimated when Sky has exclusive rights.

When Dublin played Monaghan in the All-Ireland Football quarter-final in 2014, just 54,000 people watched on Sky. By contrast, up to 443,000 people watched the previous year's quarter-final between Donegal and Mayo on TV3.

Paul Rouse concludes: "Viewing figures for showcase GAA games in Ireland collapsed."

Audience figures would inevitably take the same downward curve if rugby authorities decided to auction off the TV rights to the Six Nations to the highest bidder in 2017.

The most popular sporting event on Irish TV last year was the Six Nations decider between Ireland and France on March 15, with an audience of just under 900,000. Only Love/Hate and The Late Late Show were more popular on Irish television.

But how many of the casual sports fans, the kids who might be tempted to pick up an oval ball for the first time, would tune in if the matches were only on Sky? Previous form suggests that it would be under 200,000 in Ireland.

The Government has the power to designate certain sporting events as "free-to-air". In order to qualify, the events must have a "special general resonance for the people of Ireland".

There is a widespread feeling among sports fans that the present list is outdated. It includes the All Ireland Hurling and Football finals, the Summer Olympics, the World Cup and European Football Championships, but live coverage of the Six Nations is not included.

It is hard to fathom why the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show and the Irish Derby are designated, but the most popular rugby internationals are not, and could be sold to Sky in two years' time.

When he was Minister for Communications, Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, pressed for some Heineken Cup (now European Champions Cup) games to be designated amid enormous opposition from the rugby authorities. By the time he left government, Ryan had not managed to designate the games.

He says the present minister, Alex White, has been sitting on the results of a public consultation on free-to-air sports events for almost six months, and should make his decision known.

"I believe the Six Nations should be designated as a live event," says the former minister. "Just look at how the GAA has lost its audience on Sky.

"It is time for the minister to stand up for the viewing public before it is too late and our whole sporting life is sold off to the highest bidder."

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