Changes to free-to-air sports list prompt clash of opinions

Terrestrial broadcasters and sporting bodies make opposing submissions to Government

Big sporting drama is set to unfold this summer, not at the Aviva Stadium or Croke Park, but in the in-trays of the Department of Communications.

Its review of the sports events that must, by law, be broadcast on free-to-air television has been reopened, after an initial consultation process last year, and at the heart of the process lies the future of the Six Nations rugby tournament.

Currently, only “deferred” coverage of Ireland’s Six Nations matches appear on the “designation of major events” list, and the IRFU would like to keep it that way.

Indeed, Ireland’s biggest sporting bodies are firmly against any additions to the Government’s list, the 2014 submissions published on the department’s website confirm.


Strong challenge

In its joint submission with the organisers of Six Nations and European club rugby – redacted for commercial sensitivity – the IRFU states it would “strongly challenge” any move to insist that live Six Nations matches must be carried free-to-air.

“It would cause enormous financial losses that would do substantial damage to Irish rugby.” It also objects to the adding of European Rugby Champions Cup to the list “for the same reasons”.

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) also opposes the current status of the Republic's tournament qualification matches being on the list, describing it as "disproportionate and inequitable" and calling once again for their removal.

The FAI wants the right to sell its matches “to the broadcasters of our choice” and says this should not be interfered with “unless there is total justification”.

The system of insisting certain events must be on free- to-air “interferes with competition in the open market place and so considerably reduces the price paid for those rights”, it argues.

The Irish Sports Council is also against any further changes to the list, as is the GAA. However, the Camogie Association and Ladies Gaelic Football Association both want their finals to be designated on the list, with the latter stating it would be "a huge benefit to the game".

As a result, the All-Ireland senior ladies football final and senior camogie final have been specified by Minister for Communications Alex White, alongside the Six Nations matches, as events that will possibly receive a free-to-air designation.

Among the broadcasters, RTÉ’s submission is by far the lengthiest. It went to the trouble of commissioning audience research from Ipsos MRBI, which found that nine in 10 people support its use of the licence fee to broadcast the events on the list.

However, this fandom only goes so far. Depending on the event, between 76 per cent and 92 per cent of the public said they would not be prepared to pay by another means for those same sporting events.

"The trend towards pay TV acquiring bundled rights for the UK and Ireland highlights the need for the interests of the Irish public to be protected," RTÉ states.


It wants the following added to the list: GAA All-Ireland men’s semi-finals and quarter-finals; the opening game and final in the

Rugby World Cup

(currently only Ireland’s matches are listed); any semi-final and final of a senior European club rugby competition featuring an Irish team, and Ireland’s matches in the Six Nations.

TV3 says it "wholeheartedly supports" the policy of designating major events for free-to- air channels. It wants the designation of Six Nations games upgraded to "live" status, and makes numerous proposed additions for rugby, GAA (including the women's finals), boxing and athletics.

It also wants the Sunday rounds of major golf tournaments and the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle added.

In its submission, TG4 warns it is "far from certain" that TG4 would be in a position to acquire TV rights for the next or any subsequent Women's Rugby World Cups unless the event was given free-to-air designation.

Sky, on the other hand, says “sports bodies are best placed to understand the complex broadcasting requirements that apply to their sport” and should have the freedom to sell their rights to whichever party they wish. It calls the major events list a “tax on sport to the benefit of the terrestrial broadcasters, particularly RTÉ”.

If certain matches within a particular sport were no longer to be available to Sky on an exclusive basis, it would review its entire relationship with that sport, it warns. “The likely result would be less money invested in the sport.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics