RTÉ limbers up for sporting clashes as quiet years relegated to past

July calendar ‘particularly acute’ as sports vie for eyeballs, says boss Declan McBennett

This year will bring some high-profile sporting clashes – in more ways than one.

The unusually early return of Sunday Game Live to RTÉ television schedules on Easter Sunday marks the start of a "condensed" 2022 calendar, says RTÉ group head of sport Declan McBennett, with the broadcaster preparing to juggle several overlapping events in July.

The greater prominence commanded by women's sport since a "crossing the Rubicon" moment in 2019, when all games in the Fifa Women's World Cup were shown on either RTÉ or TG4, means "there is no such thing as a quiet year" anymore.

"It is particularly acute in July, because of the GAA calendar moving the All-Ireland finals into that month, when we also have the women's Euros," he says.

“GAA is part of our DNA and it’s what we do, but with the continued emergence of women’s sport, there will be a focus on the women’s Euros this time around that has never been there before.”

Although the Republic of Ireland team did not qualify for Uefa Women's Euro 2022, England's hosting of the tournament is expected to deliver a helpful combination of media hype and – unlike the more challenging time zone of Australia and New Zealand for next year's World Cup – peak-time scheduling.

The first half of July will also see Ireland's women compete in the Hockey World Cup, while the second half includes some big Irish racing days. "That's only the stuff that RTÉ has. Outside of that, you have other international sport going on," he says.

So many events “competing in the same space for the same eyeballs” might not be ideal, but it’s still a nice problem to have. “Our rights portfolio is now at a greater level than it has been at any point since the 2008 crash,” says McBennett.

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes signalled in 2019 that RTÉ could adopt a policy of scheduling its biggest sporting occasions on RTÉ One, in line with the BBC’s approach. Is this still on the cards?

“That’s a decision for the executive,” says McBennett, who was appointed to his role in 2018. But it will only happen this summer when there is a need to use both channels for sport simultaneously.

While the All-Ireland hurling and football finals – scheduled for July 17th and 24th respectively – will air on RTÉ2, their traditional home, some earlier championship matches will be shown on RTÉ One as RTÉ2 concentrates on the women’s Euros.

‘Sport, sport, sport’

The RTÉ News channel will also be used as a spill-over at times, “to bring exposure to certain sports”, he says.

“We also need to remember there is an audience that don’t want wall-to-wall sport, and RTÉ has to cater for that audience as well. If you have two competing sports, you can’t simply take over the schedules for RTÉ One and RTÉ2 and go ‘it’s sport, sport, sport, sport, sport’, and if you love sport, happy days, and if you don’t, there’s no place for you.”

In their previous autumn slots, ratings for the All-Ireland finals have remained strong in recent years. Tyrone's victory over Mayo in last year's football final was the second most-watched programme on Irish television in 2021, attracting an average of 944,600 viewers. The hurling final between Limerick and Cork was ninth, beaten by England's Euro 2020 semi-final and final and two of Ireland's Six Nations games, but still drew 774,200 viewers.

RTÉ had no input into the GAA’s decision to shift the finals to July, but it is working with it to try to reduce direct clashes.

“There will be an element of games flowing into each other, and in some cases, they will compete, but we will try to minimise those. The key for us is to get domestic competition finished by 6pm, or 5pm if preferable, so that we can go into the night-time women’s Euros, and all sports are getting their own window,” says McBennett.

“Then it’s down to the public to decide who they want to watch, what they want to see.”

The non-traditional scheduling of the men's Fifa World Cup will likely yield bumper winter ratings, meanwhile, despite long-felt queasiness at its staging in Qatar and the bidding process that led to it.

“You’ve got holiday time in June, you have warm weather, you have things to do. In the middle of November and December, if it’s cold and wet outside, it might be a better option to stay in,” says McBennett, predicting some fans will be “streaming two games at work, then going home and watching two games in the evening”.

RTÉ's sport portfolio could have been even bigger this year had it been successful in the last bidding process for UK racing rights – its attempt to snatch them back off Virgin Media Television irritated its rival, with which it now splits Six Nations rugby coverage.

The likes of Cheltenham and Aintree – which have "historical resonance" to Ireland, McBennett notes – will be on Virgin until at least the end of 2023. But it doesn't sound as if RTÉ has given up trying to win them back.

“RTÉ and Virgin have worked extremely well in terms of the agreement around rugby, but we are still competitors,” says McBennett.

“It’s not a bottomless pit of money. We still have the financial concerns. Those are well documented. But the onus is on me and those in RTÉ to try and acquire as many sporting rights as possible – without ever believing that we should have or are entitled to a monopoly.”

Next rights deal

Indeed, under the current GAA rights deal, which was extended by a year due to the pandemic, RTÉ has 31 championship games and Sky has 20. Is RTÉ tense that its share might shrink under the next deal, especially now streamers regularly join pay-TV companies in the sports rights fray?

“That remains to be seen and Croke Park would certainly have a view on that. But, no, there’s no degree of tension. We’re confident in what we do across all our platforms. Sometimes radio gets forgotten, but radio is a very important medium to us, and we’re keen to hold onto exclusive rights. Television, there will always be a mix.”

Cricket, rugby league and Formula One all offer cautionary tales of competitions fading from public consciousness when their federations or associations chose a short-term pay-day over the long-term exposure of free-to-air, he adds.

It is when free-to-air’s national audience reach meets the drama of unpredictability that the magic happens.

As far as All-Ireland football goes, little would top the emotion of a Mayo victory. So would the resulting surge in viewers be enough for such a final to beat the Late Late Toy Show in the annual ratings chart?

“No,” says McBennett quickly. “I think everyone wants to see Mayo win the All-Ireland. But the Toy Show is an unstoppable juggernaut.”

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