Sport dominates latest TV ratings

Big audiences for soccer, GAA and rugby justify Irish broadcasters’ bidding wars

Republic of Ireland’s James McClean. International soccer was the most popular type of sport with Irish viewers last year, according to the Nielsen/TAM Ireland list of the top 20 most-watched programmes in 2016. Photograph: Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire

For uniting the nation around a television screen, and keeping them glued, there is only one genre that really does the business: sport.

In the Nielsen/TAM Ireland list of the top 20 most-watched programmes in Ireland in 2016, sport takes up 12 places. It occupies spots two all the way down to 10, having been beaten only by the Late Late Toy Show, and then shows up a further three times lower down the list.

As a rule of thumb, international soccer is the most popular type of sport with Irish viewers. It is generally followed by GAA, with the caveat that in 2016, the all-Ireland football final just edged into fifth place ahead of the Republic of Ireland's least-watched Euro 2016 match (the one where we lost to Belgium).

Rugby is typically third, although Ireland's games in the Rugby World Cup outperformed both GAA finals in 2015.


All of the top 20 programmes last year were broadcast by RTÉ, which was not the case in 2015, when TV3 nabbed a record five of the spots – again, this was thanks to sport, as TV3 was the rights-holder to the Rugby World Cup that year.

Euro 2016 matches

But even in its rugby-free 2016, sport accounted for six of the top 10 programmes on TV3, with five of those being the Euro 2016 matches that RTÉ had sub-licensed to its rival because it couldn’t afford to hang onto all of the rights.

The importance of sport is not a new facet of the television business, but it has been an especially striking one in recent years. For garnering big audiences – the kind that can be sold to advertisers as special events or in special packages – there is simply nothing as reliable.

The pattern highlights just how much the Irish television industry depends on the cycle of quadrennial sporting events, with ratings shooting up and down in accordance with the calendar.

Viewing figures

This year, with no World Cup, no European Championship and no Rugby World Cup, there are simply fewer “big days” on Irish television. Thank goodness, RTÉ must think, for the GAA.

The viewing figures also provide context for the bidding frenzy for sports rights in Ireland in recent years. From next year, Six Nations rugby will depart RTÉ for TV3, and presumably most of the audience will go with it.

Separately, both RTÉ and TV3 lost out to Eir for the rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It’s an expensive game, but the bidders clearly believe the rewards are worth it – for now.