Sky can be the limit to latest GAA broadcast negotiations
Exclusive championship rights for satellite broadcaster mightn’t be on the cards but some partnership would be possible
The graceful taking of positions for the GAA’s triennial broadcasting dance has begun with association commercial director Peter McKenna sending up the signal that there is “an open agenda” on the issue of Sky Sports securing rights.
For many years the idea of Sky as a sort of forbidden solution to the GAA’s concerns about television coverage flourished. The station’s breathless hyping of Premier League soccer and in time European Cup rugby was portrayed as precisely the injection of razzmatazz that Gaelic games coverage needed.
There was insufficient attention paid to contemporary shortcomings in the GAA product: knock-out competition from which big teams could be unexpectedly eliminated and, even in the era of the qualifiers, a relatively restricted schedule of big events.
In his annual report 18 years ago then GAA director general Liam Mulvihill prophetically warned: “We must also seriously examine our competition structures to see if we are organising a package, which allows us to promote our games to the maximum extent possible.”
Whereas those structures began to evolve immediately with the addition of fixtures to both the hurling and football calendars, it would be hard even these days for Sky to light that many fireworks on a sustained basis for the unwieldy competitive structures of the All-Ireland championship.
More significantly there was what has always been seen as the political impossibility of allocating significant, exclusive rights to a subscription channel. Although the GAA greatly coveted the idea of a rival broadcaster with deep pockets to compete with RTÉ, that dream has never been realised even if TV3 has made a belated arrival at the dance in the last two rights issues.
The GAA always insisted that subscription channels were an option and complained with other sporting organisations about the ring-fencing of certain events for terrestrial television but the realpolitik of the situation was that such a move would be a hard sell.
Congress used to hear regular complaints about the door charge of $20 people had to pay if they wanted to watch matches in bars in the US so it can be imagined what the uproar would be were the same events to disappear from terrestrial screens in Ireland.
Earlier this year current director general Páraic Duffy explicitly accepted this in an interview for Michael Moynihan’s GAAconomics The Secret Life of Money in the GAA, telling the author:
“With our TV rights we’re constrained, rightly, because we wouldn’t get away with selling the rights to the championship to Sky Sports or somebody like that, even though those organisations have expressed an interest. With us, we start from this point – how can we best promote the games and make them available to the maximum number of people? It’s after those criteria are addressed that we think about maximising the revenue from those.”
In 2005 his predecessor Mulvihill had also accepted the limitations of these realities but drew attention to another issue. “All things being equal we’re going to be in bed with a terrestrial Irish broadcaster going forward and money isn’t going to be the major issue. For me the bigger issues relate to the quality of the coverage and its modernising.”
That summed up a further concern for the GAA: that as well as being unable to maximise revenue because of the essentially uncompetitive nature of Irish broadcasting, the games were losing out because without meaningful rivalry to drive standards, the quality of the coverage was always vulnerable to stagnation and RTÉ in danger of becoming complacent.
In his comments on Today FM last week, McKenna was pretty much in line with this policy even if he did talk up the prospect of subscription television.
“We have an open agenda on this one. What we’re charged with, is to get the best deal for the Association. That’s not necessarily the most money but it’s certainly where we’ll get the best TV coverage, exposure and marketing and push for our games and benefit long-term.
“Obviously a pay-wall would cause some issues, but we’ve been with a pay-wall when we’ve been with Setanta. So the leagues are behind a pay-wall for the Setanta coverage.”
Croke Park know well that there is no comparison between league and championship coverage for these purposes: live broadcasting of the former on a scheduled basis is hardly 10 years old but viewers have been watching big All-Ireland matches on RTÉ for more than five decades.
Yet there has been a creeping removal of exclusive rights from RTÉ: league, club, Sigerson, Fitzgibbon, International Rules and eventually championship have all been allocated to TG4, Setanta and TV3.
It’s hardly likely that Sky would secure any meaningful access to exclusive domestic coverage but they could be offered overseas rights, highlights packages or shared access (such as the station enjoyed in respect of Champions League matches until recently losing out to BT, its aggressive new competitor whose presence has forced BSkyB to look out for other broadcasting rights – a state of affairs also of interest to Croke Park).
Typically the GAA have initially engaged in small-scale broadcast partnerships so they could monitor how satisfactory the new rights holders were proving.There would be a great deal of interest in seeing how Sky would actually handle an at-first limited bundle of GAA matches. Maybe that curiosity has now got as far as Jones’s Road.