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Ordinary supporters alienated in rush for TV money


Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The main sport story of last week, at least from an Irish perspective, did not appear to be the defeats of Leinster or Munster, or Ulster's demolition of Connacht, or events in Croke Park or Anfield.

Rather, it was the continuing fuss over the GAA's sale of some broadcasting rights to Sky. For many, the debate has already gone on too long. There is merit in both sides of the argument, but I can't help but draw parallels with the situation in which European rugby finds itself with the advent of the Rugby Champions Cup.

There are, by definition, major differences between rugby and the GAA. Rugby is a professional game, the money men have been well established and the European Rugby Cup and northern hemisphere rugby in general made their own deals with Sky many years ago. But there are similar emotions between aggrieved GAA members and their rugby counterparts – the traditional and long-standing rugby supporters and club members. Joe Brolly, pundit and former All-Ireland-winning Derry forward, has described the Sky deal as "a potent symbol of a new commercial era, where greed is good and the old values of community and togetherness are quaint and embarrassing".

When the European Cup, as it was initially known, was inaugurated in 1995, it was envisaged that it would provide an opportunity for the top club and provincial teams to test themselves against the best, while also providing a further means for development of the game in the northern hemisphere. The inclusion of Italian and Romanian club sides was testament to that.

What we find ourselves faced with 20 years on, however, is a horse of a different colour altogether: a potential period of dominance by the privately-owned English and French clubs.

The increasing financial muscle of the English Premiership and French Top 14 appears to be all-consuming. Regrettably, control has been ceded to the TV moguls and the seemingly bottomless pockets of many of the French owners, operating in tandem with the likes of Nigel Wray, Bruce Craig, and other like-minded English owners.

While it can be argued that the Celts and Italians have been living a charmed existence in terms of qualification and revenue sharing, the new 'accord' shows signs of a harsh new reality in which the countries of the Pro12 are undoubtedly the poor relations.

While GAA fans have their issues regarding Sky's 14 exclusive championship games a year, rugby supporters are coming to terms with the cost of a second pay-per-view provider as a result of the English clubs having signed their own agreement with BT Sport, and subsequently forcing this down the throats of their so-called partners. Just how the new competition develops remains to be seen, but a relationship founded on such a poor footing hasn't exactly got off to the best of starts. All may be forgotten once the new season kicks off, but a whiff of cordite is bound to linger.

Brolly made one statement which really struck a chord: "The core of the GAA has always been that it is of the people, by the people, for the people. But as each new line is crossed, it becomes more difficult for us to feel that we are all in it together." I feel this applies across most sports in 2014.

While the move towards mass media and the consumption of sport as a form of showbusiness has obvious benefits, financially and in terms of profile, it carries with it too a sense among those at grassroots level, whatever the sport, of growing alienation.

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The success of my home club, Skerries RFC, in gaining a dramatic promotion to Division 2A of the All-Ireland League was undoubtedly my story of the past week, and probably of the entire year. We are a small but superbly supported club, as evidenced by

an estimated 300-strong following at our final game in Sligo last weekend. We've had more than our share of dark days, but we're currently enjoying a period of relative success.

While the nature of sport is that there'll always be more losers than winners and the interpretation of success will vary from club to club, there is still satisfaction in soldiering for better or worse alongside your friends, community and family.

I was privileged to have been centrally involved with Leinster for several years and I'll always share their ups and downs as a supporter, but I am now one of a band of club members around the country who feel a yawning disconnection between 'our' game, the very essence of the sport, and developments at its higher levels.

The disconnect is widening too, and at an alarming rate. Money, and its concentration in the hands of an elite, is the wedge driven between the game's constituent parts. The traditional relationship is no more; there's a cuckoo in the nest – a big, hungry cuckoo.

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