What’s a reasonable reaction as Sky falls on Gaelic games?

GAA’s new broadcast rights make some sense but will the membership be convinced?

GAA director Páraic Duffy (left) and Sky Ireland managing director JD Buckley at Croke Park for the announcement of the TV station’s acquisition of exclusive broadcasting rights to nine championship games for three years. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

GAA director Páraic Duffy (left) and Sky Ireland managing director JD Buckley at Croke Park for the announcement of the TV station’s acquisition of exclusive broadcasting rights to nine championship games for three years. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Wed, Apr 2, 2014, 09:00

And so, in a manner of speaking the Sky has fallen. Although the impact of the GAA’s sale of exclusive championship rights will be comparatively small – nine matches available free to air last year won’t be this summer and together with the five extra fixtures they comprise Sky Sports’ allocation of 14 – there is a strong sense the Rubicon has been crossed.

The GAA projects a strong self-image as a significant force in Irish society and life and that is no more than the truth.

It engages a broad swathe of the population in voluntary activity to provide recreational outlets for children and young people as well as staging the familiar repertoire of high sporting drama.

In keeping with this status or role, there was scepticism that Croke Park would actually go down the road of placing the centrepiece of its activities, the summer championship, behind a pay wall.

There had been straws in the wind but the GAA has for years been refusing to rule out doing a deal with Sky or other subscription broadcasters for championship rights. Previously these refusals were generally seen as little more than poignant attempts to create a market of sorts.

On this occasion, however, the remarks by commercial director Peter McKenna that he was open to talks with Sky – and they look so obvious now – have been followed through on.

Unreasonable
Is the criticism of the GAA in this regard unreasonable or excessive? To an extent it is. This is a sports organisation, which as well as being amateur is non-profit and ploughs back roughly 80 per cent of its revenues into the association in everything from administrators to games and infrastructural development grants.

So the membership at large benefits from the financial health of its central income gathering. According to statements, the revenue isn’t greatly increased on the approximately €10,000,000 per annum the old deal generated and the GAA has placed more emphasis on the wider reach of the games internationally.

That’s a harder sell in that it’s effectively asking the core community to take a hit in the interests of global accessibility, a cause that has been strongly advocated by association president Liam O’Neill over the past 18 months. The problem with the GAA and for its national administration is that it is not a classical top-down organisation.

Change can’t always come in the shape of edicts and at times needs to be sold carefully to the membership but there are issues that are incompatible in this form of persuasion and one of them is the current controversy surrounding the announcement of broadcast rights for the next three years.

This is why the idea of selling exclusive rights to a subscription-based channel has not been aired in any meaningful way. In fact, Croke Park administrators have been unusually watertight in their refusal to discuss in any way the rights issue while negotiations were in progress.

Negative teaction
A negative reaction to what has happened was inevitable because the membership and viewing public have become accustomed over the past two decades – this year is the 20th in which extensive broadcast coverage of the championship has been available – to being able to access live matches for free.

No-one likes paying for things they previously got for nothing and although the principle of the pay-wall was established 10 years ago by the Setanta coverage of national league fixtures, that related to a competition that the public hadn’t got as used to watching for free.

There has been speculation that the agreement will intensify the pressures for elite players to be paid. Maybe it will but it’s hard to see why.

The sale of broadcast rights has been going on in earnest for a long time. It’s over 20 years since RTÉ lost exclusive access to all of the fixtures and as stated above, 10 since subscription coverage was introduced domestically.

Similarly the “thin end of the wedge” argument – that Sky will want a larger slice when the next contract is finalised in 2017 – makes little sense when any agreement has to be consented to by the GAA, which will have had three years to gauge the impact of the arrangement.

Yet the GAA at head office know that logical arguments won’t solve problems caused by perception or emotionalism.

As an organisation it can never run too far ahead of its membership’s views. That may be a good thing or a bad thing but it is above all the reality.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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