Irish clubs must steer direction of evolving TV battle
It's over 23 years since the scheduling of a Leinster Senior Cup game allowed Irish football to score an unusual victory against the looming threat of Sky Sports.
Remarkably, the British broadcaster had to cancel its proposed live broadcast of a Scottish Cup tie between Rangers and Aberdeen because it clashed with the meeting of Athlone and St Francis in a competition where absenteeism is expected and understood.
As the fledgling broadcaster, then known as bSkyb, lacked the technology to black out the game in Ireland only, baffled viewers across the UK lost out. This was down to a provision in UEFA's rules which required permission for licensed broadcasters from one country to pipe a game into another.
When the Premier League monster was launched later that year, the FAI exploited this loophole to seek compensation from Sky and the English FA when they pressed ahead with a Super Sunday initiative that clashed with the traditional League of Ireland afternoon.
The ensuing negotiations led to the agreement of a £1.5m compensation figure that was designated for Irish clubs to install floodlights and switch to Friday and Saturday nights.
Looking back now, it can be viewed as an attempt, of sorts, to rage against the dying of the light. And it wasn't a bad deal.
Today, there is no protection for the smaller leagues in a climate where there are no borders. Football from any number of jurisdictions is available 24/7.
Friday's Aston Villa v Manchester United encounter delivered an insight into what's coming down the tracks when the Premier League formally introduces that night to its calendar from next season.
Derry's CEO Sean Barrett painted a bleak picture of the alternatives. "Saturday at 5pm? There's a game on then," he told the 'Derry Journal'.
"Is it Sunday? There's two games on then and there's one on Monday. And then on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, there's Champions League (or Europa League)."
There is an understandable panic about the addition of Friday to the Premier rota but, with the crossover of campaigns and the fact that the better clubs will have European ties on a number of Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the autumn, significant clashes will be rare.
If the punter is staying in to watch Leicester and Sunderland, then the problem, ultimately, is with the product on offer.
What stands out reading the coverage from 1992 is that the FAI and league clubs had managed to form a specialised television committee to handle a topical issue. It's a specific initiative that would be welcome now.
Ironically enough, we're now at a point where certain administrators feel the blacking out of League of Ireland games might be necessary to help attendances.
The involvement of Damien Duff might soften the impact of TV on the footfall for this evening's Shamrock Rovers v Cork encounter.
Nevertheless, it's Exhibit A for the school of thought which views the live cameras as a hindrance (and that's before considering the deplorable scheduling of the top four teams meeting on a Monday).
RTE moved kick-off in Tallaght to 7.05pm which rules out away fans with a 9-5 job and also makes life hard for Rovers fans.
Liverpool's presence on Sky is another headache, yet the reality is that inadequate scheduling is encouraging casual league followers to take the hassle-free option and watch from the couch. They are the attainable target market.
It seems rich to complain when in the not-too-distant past, getting one live league game a year was an achievement. Still, in an era where TV cash is driving the sport, it's perverse that exposure is costing Irish clubs money with no compensation available for taking a hit on the gate.
What's required is a coherent plan that strikes a balance. Showing fewer run-of-the-mill affairs and guaranteeing that the savings are directed towards showing European ties would be a start.
They promote the product and there is a market out there. An average of 134,500 RTE viewers watched Dundalk's Champions League tie with BATE last month, which compares favourably with the 124,200 that watched Celtic at the final hurdle last year. For reference, English clubs in group stage action tend to draw around 180,000-190,000.
Regular Airtricity League games on RTE this season have drawn audiences between 55,000 to 71,000.
The impact of the small screen, both at home and abroad, should be pivotal in a review of terms with the FAI.
And, while the early 1990s FAI doctrine is by no means a standard bearer, assembling a new TV committee specifically for the League of Ireland makes sense.
Indeed, given his ambitious plans to package the Irish product for expanding markets, it could even be the perfect opportunity to bring the expertise of Niall Quinn inside the tent. Either way, this is a battle where clubs cannot afford to be their own worst enemy.