If it’s not broke, don’t question it
Around now the IRFU is hosting a press conference about televised rugby.
Gerry Thornley has written a well-researched and well-argued think piece in the paper this morning arguing that the status quo should be retained.
I agree with one half of the IRFU’s argument (the European Rugby Cup or Heineken Cup) but diagree with the other half (the Six Nations).
Here’s the background.
The Minister for Communications has powers to designate certain sporting events as of special importance and therefore they must be avaialble free-to-air on terrestial television. Such events include the obvious ones including the Olympic Games, the All Ireland GAA finals, Ireland teams in the soccer World Cup and Irish involvement in the Rugby World Cup.
Once upon a time both the Six Nations and the Heinken European Rugby Cup (ERC) were available free to air.
But this might surprise people. Neither the internationals nor the ERC are designated as free-to-air at present.
Most people know that about the ERC. If you want to see any of the provinces you have to go onto Sky if they want to see it live. RTE broadcasts deferred highlights.
But people will be surprised to learn that Irish Six Nations games are currently designated as category B: in other words: there is no requirement that they be available live and for free to Irish television. The rule at the moment is for a deferred broadcast, available an hour after the kick-off.
In practice, though, we see it live and for free. RTE has a deal that is good until 2013. After that though, there’s nothing that will prevent Sky or Setanta from buying the rights.
In April, Eamon Ryan announced that he was adding a number of new events to the free-to-air list. They included many more Gaelic and football championship games, including play-offs, semi-finals and quarter-finals. The GAA has a different model, and seeks maximum exposure, and has raised no huge objections to this. Another event that has been included in the list is the Cheltenham festival.
The IRFU has objected to any change. Under the current deal, television rights are worth between €10 and €12 million to the union, it claims (RTE is sceptical of this assessment and says it requires interrogation). If the redesignation were to go ahead, it would mean that the deal between all six Northern Hemisphere rugby unions on television revenue would be changed. The union would lose money. Free-to-air for the ERC would mean Sky could not bid, meaning that the bidding war would be less competitive.
The upshot? The IRFU and the provinces would lose a lot of talent to other teams and the standard would fall.
And the quandary? Well the difficulty is obvioius. If you are a 10 year old kid and your family can’t afford Sky Sports, the only place you can watch the games is in the pub.
On top of that, though the Six Nations is currently available for free, that’s only because RTE have the rights until 2013. There’s nothing stoppign Sky or another commercial channel coming in at that stage and snapping up the rights. That would mean that the only way you could watch rugby was if you subscribed or in a pub.
That raises big questions. The biggest money in sports comes from alcohol companies and from commerical televison stations. But it raises the problem where families who follow rugby are left in the undesirable position of being unable to prevent their children being exposed to the powerful link between sport and alcohol.
The question is: Which is the stronger? The public interest in gaining access to major iconic sporting events such as the Six Nations or the rights of sporting organisations to maximise revenues.
The IRFU has mounted an extensive and impressive lobbying campaign, including emotive banners using personalities and banners that single out Eamon Ryan for blame.
I don’t believe that the ERC should be designated free-to-air. It’s not important enough.
But the Six Nations is.
The IRFU want to have their cake and eat it.
Revenue from television from the Six Nations is much larger than from the ERC.
But the argument to prevent it from becoming free-to-air is weak in my view. It’s the argument that commercial revenue, from whatever source and whatever the consequences, out-trumps all.
Of course, money is important, but it should not be the sole guiding principle. Greed has damaged soccer in Britain and elsehwhere, and virtually all commercial sports in the US.
Beware of what you wish for.
The only feasible argument that the IRFU could make is to ask Mr Ryan not to redesignate rugby until 2013, when the RTE deal runs out. But that deal is secure as it is.
The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the IRFU, in principle, do not object to the Six Nations being available live only on pay TV, albeit from 2013 on.
I just can’ t agree with that.