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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 18, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    If it’s not broke, don’t question it

    Harry McGee

    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.

    • ciaran says:

      The interesting thing is that up to now (say within the last 10 years or so, maybe slightly longer), the IRFU has played a blinder in terms of the marketing and promotional campaign it has carried out to heighten the profile of the game. From a standing start, it has overseen the growth of the game from a minority interest, to one that regularly has the whole nation gripped.

      This issue has the potential to be the demarcation point for the game in this country for the foreseeable future. On their track record, it is hard to argue with the decision of the IRFU in this matter, which is obviously to position the game as an exclusive product (to an extent – witness also the cost for international games). This is opposed to keeping it open to all.

      On an emotive level, yes, of course it would be better to see the six nations (and to a lesser extent the HC) free to air. On a purely fact based level, when you witness the money that has flown in to the Premier League (of the round ball variety) since their deal with Murdoch in the early 90s, you can’t deny that their stance is probably the correct one to take.

      (Unless, of course, we look at it laterally, and say, well, currently the French league has a lot more money behind it, and there isn’t too huge a gap in strength present at the moment. And in football, Germany has a wage cap, and a capped entry fee of €25, yet they provided a finalist in both the Europa and Champions League finals, so, why can’t it be done while keeping both free to air?)

    • So the Greens are making the not unreasonable point that water which falls freely from the sky has to be piped to your house and filtered and so on and hence we need to pay for new meters for it and pay for it if we use it excessively.

      But professional sport which also needs to be paid for must be provided free to people despite the pre-existence of all the infrastructure necessary to charge only those who watch it most and the existence of more cost effective equivalents in sports grounds up and down the country. So we will end up paying to watch amateurs but the professionals we will get for free.

      It’s a funny old rock’n'roll world as Zig and Zag used to say.

    • John says:

      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.

      Or you can go to the match, watch it in your local rugby club or wait for the highlights package.

      Most 10 year old kids don’t have the patience to watch a full match, so the highlights package is probably most suited to them anyway.

    • Eoghan says:

      The argument about money is short term and cannot be compared to the premier League in Englsih soccer. Rugby is a minority sport and generally in fourth place after Gaelic Football, Soccer and Hurling in all areas of the country. As a mamber of a club there has been a huge interest increase beginning with the success of Munster and now Leinster.

      However this is based on young people seeing their heroes play. I would be prepared to wager that a majority of 14 year old boys do not know Ian Dowling of Munster (2 European Cup medals) or Isa Nacewa of Leinster. The reason is simple. They do not watch Sky and these players are not regular internationals but critical parts of their own squad.

      The only benefit that rugby at club level gets from professional success is reflected glory. Clubs do not benefit financially and any claim to the contrary is disingenuous. Lose the publicity and lose the game.

      Short sighted claims of disaster are just a lazy way of gathering short-term shekels and lose long term credibility. Just for the record I am not a Green Party supporter or voter but I am a lover of rugby and give a little of my time week in week out for free.

      At underage level we are already seeing the drift away from player recognition and I think a professional survey would prove worrying for the IRFU.

    • Harry says:

      Six nations is currently free-to-air on French television. So is the Heineken Cup final.

    • Harry says:

      Two other salient points. GAA got its list extended far more than IRFU but has not complained. Yes, its outloook, status and approach are different. Second one is that the list needs to be updated now and not 2013 when the deal runs out. Otherwise, rugby authorities free to negotiate with others. Will IRFU always insist that rugby Six Nations is free to air?

    • Harry, lots of things are free to the air (like cigarettes in eateries, nudists and hair in ladies armpits) in France but I’m not sure that we need to follow their example in everything.

    • Harry says:

      Actually, as it happens Dan the three examples you give may not apply. Smoking is banned in French restaurants; and there’s a new puritanism in play on nudity since Sarkozy became Prez. As for the last, I think that’s Germany not France!

    • My mistake, truth to tell I’ve never been to France. I’ve been in most of the countries around it though.

    • XXfactor says:

      @ 9 No it’s France…well the Continong generally…Continental men don’t seem to be quite so squeamish about women’s body hair/odour…
      Talking of Pongs sur la Continong…apologies to Brending Behing (again kynos!) Napoleon is reputed to have specifically requested that Josephine did not wash for the entire fortnight before his visitations…
      Something decidedly dodgy in my opinion about men who prefer women to look like boys or children…

    • JD says:

      Now that FG has gone all tawdry Eurosceptic on us, it is interesting to see their chief flag-bearer here stoutly shilling away for Rupert Murdoch! There’ll be a moat around Inda’s country abode next!

      Also, @2, given that FG may form the next government, I hope that others in your party will have a better grasp of commerce than this! There is nothing free about a TV license. All of the channels are commercially run and can/will bring in sponsorship and other forms of advertising revenues. Moreover, the IRFU get their money because the rights are still sold to the highest bidder. There is nothing to stop Setanta or Sky bidding for those rights and offering them on their free-to-air platforms.

      I agree with Harry’s arguments here. Whatever about the upstart ERC, the 6 Nations occupies a special place in our divided country’s history. It should absolutely be left free-to-air.

    • dealga says:

      The difference with the GAA is that they don’t have to pay players’ wages nor risk losing their star players to higher wages abroad. Furthermore ‘free to air’ in GAA means more advertising / sponsorship money. Advertising and sponsorship money won’t make-up for the difference in lost TV revenue for egg chasing.

      Irish people are event junkies. If Irish rugby’s results on the pitch start to go south the drop off in support will be rapid. One suspects that as (what Thornley insists on calling) the ‘golden generation’ start to fade away it is going to be harder for Irish rugby to compete. If the IRFU can’t use TV money to keep the best Irish players and bring in some good imports then that process will be accelerated. Irish people, bar the admirable die-hards, do not support losing teams so there won’t be much point in keeping it free to air then.

      On the flipside I would imagine that anyone following Connacht or AIL clubs would have a thing or two to say about the IRFU’s support for ‘grass roots’ rugby.

      But, besides all of that, why hasn’t the Minister being challenged on the fact that he’s clearly gone off on a solo run here, for demonstrably selfish reasons?

    • JJ says:

      Putting Irish national team games on pay-per-view cannot be defended, in any sport. How can the IRFU claim to “own” the irish national team games? It’s not theirs to sell. And if it is sold to Murdoch then I expect my share as an Irish national. Whatever about the Heineken Cup, professional club level league, way more of a grey area…

      @Daniel Sullivan & XXfactor. I lived in France for 15 years and I can tell you that not only are the women better looking and better dressed than the Irish…so are the men! Get off your xenophobic tracksuit-clad behinds and educate yourselves before posting such ignorant banter. That kind of comment says more about you than it does about the French.

    • Cait says:

      The comments here would lead one to believe that the main sourse of the IRFU’s revenue are the TV rights of the games. What about ticket sales? Jersey sales? Sponsorship? Club dues and membership? Is that all Junk change?

      To those speaking about the GAA- yes, the players are not paid- so they dont have that outgoing- however there a lot more GAA pitches and GAA clubs in Ireland than there are Rugby. How are they maintained? Oh yes- club dues and match tickets. What was the IRFU’s profit last year?

      And out of curioustly- can anyone walk into a rugby club to watch a match? Is it not members only? becuase joining one to watch a rubgy match seems to be pay-per-view tc. Now i may be wrong- can can a person just walk into a club house to watch a match?

    • dealga says:

      JJ your comment reminds me somewhat of Gay Byrne’s quite ridiculous ‘Who are these FINA people’ in the wake of the Michelle Smith fiasco.

      International sporting federations and their membership organise international sporting competitions. The players that play in them represent their country entirely at the behest of those organisations not the State. Why do you think Ireland has two football teams and one rugby team? Because there are two football associations and one rugby union. That is the sole reason.

    • I said “Harry, lots of things are free to the air (like cigarettes in eateries, nudists and hair in ladies armpits) in France but I’m not sure that we need to follow their example in everything.” I wasn’t expressing either negative or postive sentiments about any of the three listed activities merely that they too were to be found free to air and simply because the French do something we don’t necessarily have to.

      Not sure how I’m shilling for Murdoch since the viewing rights could still be bid for by RTe or Setanta or whoever so it’s neither here nor there whether they are free to air or not. The question is how much money will the IRFU get, and if it is less what will be the consequences. JD the TV license isn’t free but I’m not sure how that is a factor? I don’t recall RTe promising us Heineken Cup rugby, but I will look at the fine print of the license just to check.

      Dear God, you say something about France or rugby and the whole place turns on ya. Who’d have thought it.

    • JJ says:

      @Dealga. The IRFU is not an entirely private organisation, it receives state funding too (ie. from us citizens) and as you said yourself the players represent “their country” (i.e., our country too). That’s just it, if they represent the country then they make themselves available to the entire country, all of us, not just those willing and able to pour money into Murdoch’s pockets.
      If they only represent the IRFU, “at the behest of the IRFU”, then let them be called Team IRFU-Aviva, and those still interested can pay to watch them on the box.

      @Daniel O’ Sullivan. Be honest now, your original comment about the French was not neutral in tone…
      And let’s not be naive. When it comes to a bidding war, who’s gonna win…..Murdoch or RTE ?

      @Cáit. Yes, you can attend any rugby match you want. You don’t have to be a member to watch one live (same as football). Just buy your ticket (or walk into the grounds free as is sometimes the case depending on the level of the match). Clubhouses on the other hand are for members and their guests only, but then the match doesn’t take place in the clubhouse …

    • george mcnulty says:

      i like the point of view of the reader who pointed out that munster is not the brand name chelsea or manchester united. it is the people who own it and therefore should not be cajoled into paying to see them play. call them beer inc and charge if they are so greedy to pay top money for this world minority sport. if free to air probable loss of 5 million, if i am correct the people gave them 170 million towards the cost of the big ,new stadium. there is a lot of financial game playing here and it ain’t rugby . george mcnulty,france

    • JJ, I don’t smoke, have no strong feelings against public nudity in the right places and I should probably keep my views on hirsute ladies to myself. Hmmm Nena…

      And I think Cait was talking about going into a rugby club to watch a match on the telly.

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