Don’t call him the Gah Man. Just as it used to grind Ryle Nugent’s gears to be known as Mr Rugger when he was RTÉ’s head of sport, Declan McBennett has had seven months of being known as the GAA’s best friend in broadcasting and it’s probably been just about five months too many.
“Yeah, it’s beginning to get annoying,” he says. “I’ve done newspaper interviews since I got the job and it has come up every time. ‘He’s the Gah Man.’ No, he’s not. He’s the head of sport. Hockey last year, women’s soccer this year, rowing, Paralympics – my job is the head of sport. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed and I’m not going to be. But equally, I’m not going to apologise for coming from Monaghan where hockey and hurling were not big things.”
And yet, when tea-time rolls around this evening, RTÉ's first foray into national league hurling since, well, ever will mark the most significant departure from the old regime to this. In a way, it's mere circumstance. When RTÉ lost the Six Nations rights to Virgin Sport – a development which pre-dated McBennett's arrival into the gig – it freed up space in both the budget and the schedules around this time of year.
Soften the blow
They had already been talking to Croke Park about trying to get in on some of the club championship coverage and over the course of those conversations, the possibility of simulcasting some league games along with Eir Sport came up. Tonight’s Limerick v Tipperary game won’t entirely soften the blow of not being the place everyone goes to see Ireland v England but it will, at least, give the watching sports audience a reason to switch over to RTÉ. Call him Gah Man for that if you like but he wouldn’t be doing his job if he conceded a sporting Saturday without some sort of resistance.
“One of the things that I would like to do over my term is have a calendar footprint with GAA. There was a perfectly legitimate criticism of RTÉ that we only carried Gaelic games live for five months of the year. The condensed calendar reduced that to four and for allowing that to be the case, you could legitimately criticise RTÉ
“We now have matches in February and March in the league. We have the option of going in April with the club championships but we probably won’t do that because the club games aren’t up to the right standard and also we’ll be preparing for May when the championship kicks in. So we will have the two months of February and March and then we have the championship from May to September and the club matches from September to November. That’s nine months of the year where we will have live GAA coverage.
"I have to be phlegmatic about losing the Six Nations because Virgin have it now and they will have it for the next few seasons. All I can do is look at our own rights portfolio and say that with the exception of the Six Nations, it looks very healthy. We have the Rugby World Cup and the women's soccer World Cup this year, we have the Euros next year, we have a calendar footprint across the GAA for nine months of the year, we have the World Cup and Olympics in 2022.
“Yes, this weekend will have a huge focus on Ireland v England. But at half-six on Saturday, the focus will shift across to Limerick v Tipperary and there will be a huge focus on that. And the following week, it will be Kerry v Dublin.”
McBennett has been in RTÉ since the summer of 1998. Early in his time as a news reporter, he went on a three-month secondment to the Belfast office and ended up staying for seven years. He has worked on Morning Ireland, in the newsroom, online, in sport and in management. This is clearly the biggest gig he's had and certainly the oddest.
Think about it – do you know who the head of sport in Virgin Media is? Or at the BBC? Sky Sports, even? No, you almost certainly don't. Yet this is McBennett's fourth national newspaper interview since last summer.
For one reason or another, people are fascinated with the internal workings of RTÉ and especially the jigs and reels of how their sports output comes to be. Part of it is the licence fee and the feeling of ownership it bestows on those who stump it up. Part of it is pure nosiness. Whatever the reason, everyone feels they can and should have a go at him and his people whenever the mood takes them. And funny enough, he’s okay with that.
"I think RTÉ do a very good job 95 per cent of the time. We get calls wrong sometimes but those are subjective calls and you won't get them all right. In the middle of the summer, we might show two hurling matches on a Sunday afternoon and then start The Sunday Game with the same hurling matches and people will go mad because it's small ball/big ball. But a lot of that is subjective. Our job is to get the best rights and then to get the best production and best analysis.
"We are compared with our competitors all the time. In Ireland you have RTÉ, you have Virgin Sport, you have TG4, you have Eir Sport, you have Sky. And yet we are constantly compared against the BBC. But look at Match of the Day, for instance. They cover one league with 20 teams in it – that's 10 matches a weekend. Take out two Sunday matches and one Monday one and they're down to seven matches on a Saturday night. We have 22 league games between football and hurling this weekend.
“They have an infrastructure within stadiums that allows them get footage back to base quickly. That’s all shared between the big broadcast companies. They have a broadband infrastructure that allows them to do that. Go to Owenbeg, Carrick-on-Shannon, even Clones and show me where the infrastructure is that allows us to take multiple games in simultaneously. And that’s before you even try to start a game with the right teams in the graphic when all these managers put out dummy teams!”
Losing the Six Nations was unquestionably a blow, which made it all the more important that when Eir Sport put the free-to-air sub-rights for this year’s Rugby World Cup up for grabs towards the end of last year, they had to be the ones who went and got them. Going the whole year – this year of all years – without the Ireland team appearing on RTÉ couldn’t be allowed to happen.
“Getting the rights was seminal for us,” McBennett says. “We had the backing of the board here and that was crucial because everything costs money and that’s a pressing factor for us, especially since it’s public money.
“With every rights contract, we have to weigh it up in four categories. What does it do for us in terms of the audience? What does it do for us in terms of output and content? What does it do for us in terms of reputation? And what does it do for us in terms of commercial?
“Rights inflation is such that some of the numbers are staggering. And the configuration of rights now with sponsors built into them and some of them needing to be looked after immediately, it’s becoming more and more difficult for commercial teams to claw back the investment. And it is public money and you have to be cognisant of that. But there is still an onus to go and bid for these rights. Some we will win, some we will lose.”
The other side of his gig is managing the talent and he made a few headlines early on when making it clear that he was going to be sanding off some of the sharper edges of some of his pundits across the sports. Eamon Dunphy left with a backward glance, accusing RTÉ of "losing their nerve" when it comes to what pundits can and can't say. McBennett's response is that he doesn't want personal attacks and that everything else is in bounds. But what constitutes a personal attack?
“It’s a question I’ve been asked several times,” he says. “It’s subjective but you’ve got to understand that if it’s an attack on a person in terms of their character or appearance or otherwise, it’s a personal attack. It has to be evidence-based.
“One of the examples that I’ve continually used is if you say a manager is not going to win an All-Ireland because they’ve conceded 11 goals in the league, they haven’t cured their defensive system and on that evidence and given the evolution of the game, it doesn’t stack up that they can win an All-Ireland, then I am fine with that and any manager would be able to take that on the chin.
“But if you say, ‘Well, the manager is a clown who doesn’t know what they’re doing’, well that’s not on. Their reputation suggests that they were the best person for that job when it was being decided upon. Only one manager is going to end the year as the All-Ireland champion or the Six Nations winner or whatever. Does that mean that the rest of them are failures? Absolutely not. Just stack up what you’re arguing, That’s all I’m saying.”