Wednesday 21 February 2018

If it's not live, then it's dead

Rep of Ireland v Poland
Rep of Ireland v Poland
John Greene

John Greene

There's a memorable exchange between young reporter Quoyle and the more senior Billy Pretty in the film version of The Shipping News.

Billy is offering some advice, encouraging Quoyle to find "the centre" of his story, "the beating heart of it". Pointing to dark clouds on the horizon, he says: "You have to start by making up some headlines. You know, short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, what do you see? Tell me the headline."

"Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds," says Quoyle.

Billy is not impressed. "Imminent Storm Threatens Village," he says.

"But what if no storm comes?" asks Quoyle.

"Village Spared From Deadly Storm."

This exchange came to mind last week after the FAI hit the news with a story that managed to run for a few days. The storm clouds gathered, then quietly moved on.

The gist of the story was this: The Republic of Ireland's home qualification games in the World Cup and the European Championships must be shown on free-to-air television under law, but the FAI has written to the government asking for this to be reversed. Naturally, it was not hard to find football fans who were shocked and dismayed at this turn of events.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is, that's not the whole story. It's not even close to the whole story.

This is the whole story.

The FAI's letter was sent to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources last August as part of a review of the current list of designated sporting events. This is a project driven by Europe, and member countries are urged to review their lists on a regular basis, every three years or so. The government, who have been dragging their feet on this, sought submissions from all interested parties, and as the body responsible for soccer in the Republic of Ireland, the FAI are clearly an interested party.

The current list of designated events, that is those which must be shown on free-to-air television, which in Ireland means RTé, TG4, TV3 and, more recently, UTV Ireland, is: the Olympics; the All-Ireland senior football and hurling finals; the Republic of Ireland's qualifying games in the World Cup and European Championships; the opening games, the semi-finals and final of the UEFA European Championships and the FIFA World Cup; Ireland's games in the Rugby World Cup; the Irish Grand National; the Irish Derby; and the Aga Khan Trophy.

These events have been specifically chosen because they are, according to the Department, "events of major importance to society" and must therefore be shown live on terrestrial television "in the public interest".

Additionally, Ireland's games in the Six Nations have a different, lesser designation: they do not have to be shown live on free-to-air television, but they must at least be given deferred coverage. This means that the IRFU is free to sell its rights to a pay-per-view broadcaster, such as Sky or BT Sport. So, the 'public interest' demands that the Republic of Ireland's games are free to air, but that Ireland's Six Nations games are not. And as for the European adventures of the four provinces, well they don't even register.

The obvious question is: Why? Why are international soccer and rugby games viewed so differently? Why are the FAI constrained from realising full market value from their games while the IRFU are not?

The evidence certainly does not support this stance. RTé's (average) viewing figures from the 2015 Six Nations are revealing: Italy v Ireland, 614,200; Ireland v France, 801,700; Ireland v England, 1,010,000; Wales v Ireland, 750,400; Scotland v Ireland, 697,000. RTé showed all 15 games in the tournament, attracting on average of 425,600 per game, the highest rating for 10 years.

The recent European Championship qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Poland, meanwhile, attracted an average audience of 707,800.

These figures clearly show there is a similar level of public interest in both national sides.

In that context, and in terms of the debate in general, there is an argument that the FAI showed some restraint in how it framed its submission to the Department. The language is measured, not hyperbolic. There are clear inconsistencies - such as that just highlighted - in the list of designated events but the FAI refrains from going down the road of highlighting these discrepancies, and instead argues its own case, that "as a matter of principle the qualifying matches should not be listed".

On the day after the FAI's submission was lodged, the IRFU - in conjunction with Six Nations Rugby Ltd, and European Professional Club Rugby - handed in a very detailed paper to the Department. The International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) also made a submission but asked that it be kept confidential. Like the FAI, the IRFU put forward a strong case against its Six Nations and provincial games being designated as free to air in the public interest. In fact, the IRFU argues that if the status of their games was to be changed now, not alone would there be no "palpable benefit", there would be a "clear risk of enormous damage to Irish rugby".

The IRFU backed its argument with an outline of its financial model, highlighting what it projected its potential losses could be if it could not demand market value for games. These figures are excluded from the published report at the request of the IRFU on the basis that the information is commercially sensitive. But the Union's message to the government is clear: the worst-case scenario "would decimate the IRFU's finances and force it to slash investment projects across the board".

A month earlier, in July 2014, the Irish Sports Council made a submission calling for the status quo to be retained. "The Council does not believe it is in the interests of the major sporting bodies to designate further sports events as events of major importance to society under the [Broadcasting] Act," wrote chief executive John Treacy. "This would have an impact on their ability to raise income from television rights, which could not be replaced by other income sources in the short to medium term."

There were submissions, too, from the GAA, the Olympic Council of Ireland, Horse Racing Ireland, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, RTé, Sky Ireland, TV3, TG4, UTV Ireland and others. All adopt viewpoints which, predictably, are compatible with their needs.

The thing is, there is no right and wrong in this argument. There are only positions. And different groups will naturally take a stance relative to their own particular standpoint. The free-to-air television companies argue that it is in the public interest to lock these events down in the Act. Sky Ireland, though, argue that "given the large number of different possible outcomes, it is critical that sports bodies have the freedom to weigh them up and come to the right decision in the best interests of their sport".

A fortnight ago, the minister, Alex White, indicated he was considering adding the Six Nations to the list. The All-Ireland ladies football and camogie finals are also being considered. "I think there is a strong case for designating these events, but there is no decision yet," he said. (Why is there no decision? The minister had seven months to study submissions, take advice and consider what he wanted to do.) He added: "Under the legislation, the primary question I have to ask is whether these events have a special resonance and distinct cultural significance or importance for the people of Ireland."

It is difficult to know where to draw the line in attempting to compile lists deemed to be in the public interest.

The GAA, for instance, is happy for its All-Ireland finals to be on the list (although it is interesting to note that there are a number of submissions from members of the public critical of the GAA's decision to sell some of its games to Sky and seeking the government's intervention). HRI too is happy to have two marquee races designated and it goes without saying that the OCI wants the Olympics freely available. 
But not everybody is happy.

The FAI and the IRFU are effectively making the same argument, and it is a reasonable one, that they should be allowed to control their own commercial activity. The government can decide to agree or disagree. The public, too, can decide whether to agree or disagree. However, what is plainly obvious is that there is no good reason why one should be treated differently from the other. There must be a consistent approach.

Sport is extremely important to broadcasters. The viewing figures for RTé's Six Nations coverage show just how important. The way we consume television is undergoing huge change as we adjust to the fact that for the most part we can watch what we want, when we want. We can record shows or entire series, we can catch up on our favourite programmes through various services offered by broadcasters, we can sign up to Netflix, we can install Apple TV, and so on. The idea of sitting down to watch a television programme 'live' - even the news - is becoming more outdated.

One major exception is sport: big games draw a captivated live audience of fans who can only be satisfied by being part of the moment, by investing themselves emotionally in what they are witnessing without knowing the outcome. That is the beauty of sport as a contest - and for the majority of viewers knowing the outcome significantly reduces the chances of them watching a deferred showing. As a colleague said last week, if it's not live, it's dead.

The IRFU is said to be concerned that the minister is considering putting the Six Nations into the same category as the Republic of Ireland's games, although there has been speculation he will stop short of doing so . . . this time. If he does, then he should be fair to the FAI and give them the same rights over their games as the IRFU.


GAA must use match officials in smart way

A new rule came into force in Gaelic football yesterday and will be in operation for today's Allianz Football League semi-finals in Croke Park: a referee may consult with a neutral linesman concerning the validity of a score.

Apart from the fact that the better referees have been doing this already, you have to wonder why a rule such as this is being introduced two years after Hawk-Eye was installed in Croke Park. Surely this obvious path could have been travelled first? At least there are linesmen in every ground.

Referees need all the help they can get, they are just not getting it because the GAA rulebook can't keep up with the changing landscape of Gaelic football and hurling, and particularly the speed and intensity of championship games.

At every inter-county championship game, there are eight neutral match officials: a referee, two linesmen, four umpires and a sideline official. The problem is the majority of the work falls on the referee's shoulders - the other seven could be doing a lot more to assist, but for a variety reasons they don't.

Let's take the sideline official. In the overall scheme of things, he doesn't have a huge amount of work to do. His duties are set out in Rule 4.1:

(a) To receive substitution notes giving the name and number of a substitute or temporary substitute and the name and number of the player being substituted or replaced.

(b) To record and report all substitutions and temporary substitutions made during a game to the referee for inclusion in the match report.

(c) To display by means of electronic or manual board the numbers of players being substituted.

(d) To display by means of electronic or manual board the additional amount of time, if any, which will be played at the end of each half, as indicated by the referee to the linesman.

These, of course, are all important tasks, but given that sideline officials are also qualified referees, why can't they be a meaningful part of the match-day team? They generally have a good view from their position, they are experienced officials and can be relied upon to give considered views on anything they witness.

Umpires could also be used more. Umpires tend to be friends of referees, so there is an automatic trust there, usually built up over years of travelling to games together.

The standard of refereeing in the last few years has not been as good as the GAA likes to think it has, but smarter use of the match-day team of officials would undoubtedly lead to instant improvements.

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