Arrival of Sky to herald a new era

Sky’s decision to broadcast Gaelic games is final proof for the GAA of the overwhelming success of their TV experiment


When the rights and wrongs of the GAA/Sky television deal again erupt again this summer – as they surely will at some point on the long and dusty championship trail – it might be worth recalling, even as you set your digital recorder, the motion sent forward to Annual Congress from Roscommon in April of 1969.

The proposal that the GAA refuse RTÉ the rights to broadcast its games was in keeping with the broad notion that, in a less enlightened era, the GAA mistrusted the idiot box in much the same way as the Church had mistrusted Galileo. But as Séamus Duke explained during that Congress, there was a pragmatic rationale to the Roscommon proposal.

“RTÉ pays us £4,500 for ten hours of live television, plus recorded highlights. Every other company pays for recorded highlights. On live television, they payment is over £450 per hour.”

RTÉ, in other words, was getting too much bang for its buck. Just nine years after the beginning of RTÉ – and De Valera’s cautionary speech on the medium – there was a consciousness within the GAA of the commercial appeal of the games and that produced a tension between the organisations which would dictate affairs in the coming decades. Television and the GAA was never a straightforward romance and for decades before Gaelic games came to dominate summer weekend viewing schedules, it was clear that the organisation had wrestled with the dilemma of how best to handle television.

“Two big Irish institutions with their own agendas,” laughs Niall Cogley, formerly head of sport with RTÉ and now filling the same role with TV3.

“The GAA didn’t want to be dictated to by television as other sports had been. I remember fighting a fairly bruising battle within RTÉ to force the GAA production team to allow the clock and score on the screen. There was a perception that it would be aping something association football did. And that was an internal RTÉ wrangle . . . It had nothing to do with the GAA. There was a genuine concern that handing over television rights would stop people coming through the turnstiles . . . and I think that was fairly reasonable. There were layers to the whole concept – including the fact that you had amateur players under television analysis. So it was always complex.”

Broadcast rights
It always was. In 1987, the Munster final between Tipperary and Cork was fixed for Fitzgerald stadium and interest greatly exceeded the 45,000 capacity. For a few giddy weeks, a rumour went around that the GAA were considering allowing the game to be broadcast live. In the end, though, the move was considered too risqué.

“We are also conscious of the promotional value of having a live broadcast of the Munster final, “said president Mick Loftus in breaking the disappointing news. “However we had to balance that against the effect it could have on the Ulster final between Armagh and Derry in Clones, especially on a wet day. Officials of the Ulster Council were completely opposed.”

And that was that. The fear behind that decision highlights just how frail self-confidence was during that period. The decision not to broadcast the game was based upon the concern that one GAA match would somehow take away from another. The advent of 2pm and 4pm throw-ins would come later – a consequence of live television. The idea that the football communities of Derry and Armagh would stay home to watch the hurling rather than go and see their counties play seems unlikely now.

But maybe neutrals from the neighbouring counties would have done: after all, a live Munster hurling match was something that most people outside the province did not see. Dynasty was a household staple in 1988 but the Munster hurling final was a faraway exoticism.

Enthusiastic audience
The GAA knew there was an enthusiastic audience for their games. The success of The Sunday Game had demonstrated that.

As Jim Carney, the first presenter of the Sunday Game, recalls, the programme came about partly through the sustained vocal pressure of younger GAA people who had grown up with Match of the Day and The Big Match and demanded to know why the GAA couldn’t have something similar.

The early days of The Sunday Game were logistically crazy, with Carney and the production team literally flying into provincial grounds by helicopter – pre-empting the preferred travel mode of captains of commerce and politics in the Celtic Tiger era – and then taking to the skies to transport the video tapes back to Montrose. There was scarcely time for a visit to the make-up room before the programme went on air.

As Carney recalls, the attitude in Croke Park was one of studied indifference.

“They didn’t greet it enthusiastically but didn’t stand in its way either. Fred Cogley [Niall Cogley’s father] was the one who had to go to Croke Park along with Michael O’Carroll and Justin Nelson to pretty much get permission to do this. There was a huge nervousness about it. They just almost didn’t want to know. The atmosphere was negative. A lot of young people were saying that if England could have Match of the Day, why couldn’t the GAA even though the anti-soccer thing was still huge.

“This was the same decade as the Ban went, remember. So they didn’t want to be seen to be promoting a Big Match-type programme. They probably didn’t think it would take off the way it did take off. They did not show themselves to be a confident organisation in that time whereas now, a lot of us would feel that the GAA is a very confident association. I think there was the sense that RTÉ were Flash Harries. And they were wary of that.”

The mania which swept Ireland during the Italia ’90 World Cup may have been the turning point. Most cities and villages appeared deserted during the Irish team’s fabled run to the quarter-finals as people were glued to the television. Suddenly, the GAA looked old-fashioned and staid and there were both euphoric predictions and deep fears – depending on perspective – that soccer would prosper in the years to come. Instead, the 1990s became the period of great transition for the GAA.

The extraordinary four-game saga between Dublin and Meath in the first round of the Leinster championship arrived with providential timing. The soaring narrative gripped the country and every single championship after that, from the Ulster football renaissance of the early 1990s to the hurling revolution from 1995-1999 seemed to have memorable tales. And by 1994, the games went live on television.

“It is very much tied into that whole process which took place in the early-to mid -1990s, which was a decade of massive change,” says Mark Duncan of the Century Ireland Project and co-author of The GAA: A People’s History.

Commercial activity
“It was the era of increased commercial activity, of logos on jersey and television was tied into that. There was so much happening all at once and all the suspicion about television just went: it was at the core of what the GAA was trying to do. And it has now filtered down to the club championships with TG4 coming on board.”

All of a sudden, GAA occasions like the Connacht football final or Munster hurling final which had for decades been locked into their respective provinces now had a national dimension. Counties whose teams never made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals and therefore had seldom featured on television had a nationwide audience for the first time. The revived International Rules series gave the public a chance to see the quality of players from less successful football counties.

Throughout the history of the GAA, the All-Ireland hurling and football championships had been largely a notional thing: supporters went to see their own county and listened to the radio and read the match reports, filling in the gaps with their imagination. Now, for the first time, they could see it unfold through Saturday night broadcasts and Sunday afternoon double bills and the highlights on the Sunday Game.

“It was much like the emergence of photography in newspapers,” says Duncan.

“When that happened, suddenly people knew what the players looked like: they weren’t just names in print. And it was possible for certain players’ celebrity to transcend their own localities and communities through the mass media. Television did breathe life into the process in much the same way.”

Final proof
The arrival of Sky television is final proof of the overwhelming commercial success of the TV experiment. The landscape had already begun to change for RTÉ, with TV3’s championship coverage offering an alternative approach, placing an emphasis on player and game analysis rather than the personality of the studio guests.

Now, the pressure is on the Sky production team to deliver the innovation and slickness which has distinguished their football coverage. The television profile of Gaelic games has undergone an extraordinary shift in the last 20 years, with players who remain strictly amateur now sharing the same television stage as the cast of best -paid athletes in the world. The danger is that as the competition for cutting-edge analysis – and viewing figures – becomes more intense, the players will be critiqued as professional sportsmen.

“You always have to have respect for the players,” says Cogley. “They are not being paid: they are not fodder for you to sell products off by allowing yourself to gratuitously criticise them. The absent party needs to be represented fairly.

“I’m sure the rights holders over the next period will try to manage that as best they can. I’d hope neither of the broadcasters will feel free to empty the magazine. That kind of cheap shot stuff doesn’t do anybody any good so I imagine they will be as responsible as they can be.”

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