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Running the rule over sports TV rights

With so many packages and options available, it’s no wonder fans are confused. Here’s a quick guide to how you can watch your favourite sport

Armchair fans wanting their fill of action could potentially spend north of €1,000 a year if they were to take a combination of packages from Virgin and Sky, or Sky and eir, along with Racing UK (the only place to watch Irish horse racing), and the occasional MMA bout. Photograph: iStock

Armchair fans wanting their fill of action could potentially spend north of €1,000 a year if they were to take a combination of packages from Virgin and Sky, or Sky and eir, along with Racing UK (the only place to watch Irish horse racing), and the occasional MMA bout. Photograph: iStock

 

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times if you’re fan of live sport. From the GAA to the NBA, and from Premier League football to golf’s majors, there’s never been greater choice available of what to watch – but the ways of doing so are splintering into many pieces before our eyes.

It used to be a tale of two options: Irish punters got plenty of high-quality sport on free-to-air TV while a subscription to Sky Sports took care of the rest. Once, Sky held a near-monopoly on top-class live sport, but now new players are entering the field.

Virgin Media, eir and Vodafone have all joined the fray. Most of the providers will let you add sports channels, usually for an extra cost. Many offer introductory pricing for their sports packages, such as half-price cost for the first six months, but armchair fans wanting their fill of action could potentially spend north of €1,000 a year if they were to take a combination of packages from Virgin and Sky, or Sky and eir, along with Racing UK (the only place to watch Irish horse racing), and the occasional MMA bout.

One caveat though: keen-eyed fans will need to do some research before choosing a TV provider as it could lock them out of some sports channels. You can buy standalone sports packages from Sky and Virgin, but eir and Vodafone’s TV offers are only available to customers of their broadband services. At the moment, Virgin customers can’t access BT Sports’ coverage on eir’s platform, whereas Vodafone broadband and TV customers have the option to add both Sky Sports and eir sport.

If the GAA club championship is a must-have, eir sport has the rights to 30 matches, while others are available on TG4. On the other hand, rugby’s Champion’s Cup will now be available free-to-air in Ireland for the first time in 16 years, with Virgin Media having snapped up the rights from Sky. Sky has added the GAA to its mix and recently landed NBA basketball. But if you want to watch Champions League football this season, you need to have access to Virgin Media or eir’s packages. Confused yet?

“It is certainly one of the hot topics of the second half of 2018 for us. The issue is still quite unclear and it’s uncertain how this is going to play out,” says John Trainor, chief executive of Onside, a sports sponsorship consultancy.

A new streaming service, ElevenSports, scored a coup this summer by winning exclusive rights to show Spanish and Italian football. It makes its highlights packages available for free on a laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone, but if you absolutely must watch Barcelona or Juventus live, then it costs €6.99 for a monthly all-access pass, or €69.99 for an annual subscription.

Free-to-air TV

Although some fans may not like the prospect of having to pay many different ways to watch sport, Rob Hartnett of the consultancy Sport for Business says we have it good in Ireland. Marquee events like the World Cup and the Olympics are ring-fenced on free-to-air TV unlike in many countries, as are most major Irish matches in various codes. “When the GAA made a move to Sky Sports, they were getting so much flak, but the reality is you’ve always had to pay to see sport live. You can’t just pitch up at Castlebar or Newbridge and demand free entry. Sport doesn’t exist unless there’s revenue coming into it.”

Fortunately for fans with one eye on their emptying wallets, there are moves towards making events available on a pay-as-you-go basis. This kind of model would save people from having to sign up for costlier subscriptions to a set of channels just to watch a fraction of their content. Last season, the NBA tested micropayments, letting fans pay 99 cents to watch the fourth quarter of a game in progress.

Mick O’Keeffe, chief executive of global advisory firm Teneo PSG in Ireland, reckons the likely outcome will be a mix of free-to-air TV, pay-per-view, and subscriber-only content. It’s not in the interests of any sports association, or “rights holder” in industry parlance, to artificially limit its audience. “A sports organisation has a huge remit to promote its sport, so the more eyeballs it gets, the better,” he says.

John Trainor says fans shouldn’t worry that they’ll be left on the sidelines. “My advice for the armchair fan is to hold on and anticipate that the outcome of all this disruption is in their interest. I believe the commercial model will ultimately end up in a place where fans won’t be punished in their pockets for wanting to follow their team. From their perspective, it should end up being a positive outcome.”