Ciarán Murphy: Sky ensure GAA revolution won't be televised

TV deal was signed before sweeping changes were made to championship structures

Broadcasting deal  with Sky it runs until the end of the 2021 championship. Photograph: Inpho

Broadcasting deal with Sky it runs until the end of the 2021 championship. Photograph: Inpho

 

Time was, when we used to talk about looking forward to the start of the championship, it was safe to assume we were talking in the abstract. I mean, sure, we were looking forward to the third weekend in May, the first airing of The Sunday Game theme music, that look in Michael Lyster’s eye when he finally realises he doesn’t have to preface every question he asks on live television with “look, we all know this is just the league, but . . .”

And then we’d take a look at the games that were actually on that day, and we’d grit our teeth and tell ourselves this championship lark is a marathon, not a sprint. There would be some bellyaching about the lack of a “marquee” game to get the ball rolling, but really, what else could it be other than a slow start?

But of course, 2018 is different. And it’s different right from the off this time. The All-Ireland hurling champions will be in action on Saturday evening, May 12th, and the following day there’s Mayo against Galway in what is pretty much the most eagerly-awaited game in the entire provincial football championships, and Dublin against Kilkenny in the Leinster senior hurling championship.

The following Sunday sees four hurling championship games – Wexford against Dublin, Kilkenny against Offaly, Cork against Clare, and Limerick against Tipperary, plus the meeting of Division 1 sides Tyrone and Monaghan in the Ulster football championship.

From a position where it seemed inevitable – for the 20 or so years that the GAA has been an all-summer-long fixture in our living rooms – that we would have to endure a pretty sedate opening few weekends, we are now faced with a situation where on just the second weekend of the championship there would be at least four games fixed for that Sunday that are of huge interest to a neutral audience, games that would be nailed-on certainties to be televised in any other year.

Hurling championship

I have a feeling this is going to be another occasion when our sense of outrage will be late to arrive, far too late to do anything about it, but will be none the less vitriolic for it.  

The deal signed in December 2016 for television coverage of the GAA championships stipulates that there will be 45 games shown live across RTÉ and Sky Sports, with the BBC showing live coverage of the Ulster championship.

But that deal was signed before Congress passed the two most sweeping changes to our championships structures in the history of the association – 45 games last year was plenty. This year? There are 16 games in the hurling championship in the first five weeks of the championship that by any measure would be worthy of full live coverage.

The last games in each group will be played simultaneously, so you’ll be only be able to show one of them, but still – 14 live TV slots, in the hurling championship alone, by June 17th . . . I don’t think that’s going to happen, and people will be pretty annoyed if, after all the talk about new structures, they won’t be able to see with their own eyes just how well this experiment is going.

Broadcasting deal

The elephant in the room in this case is, of course, Sky. The broadcasting deal is signed, and it runs until the end of the 2021 championship. It has been very easy to close down any argument over the Sky deal by saying just that – the deal’s done, come back to us in the next decade. There appears no appetite this summer for any change in the number of live games.

But if the GAA are missing out on a host of games that would otherwise be shown, and they seek to change one element of that deal (the amount of games shown), surely other parts of that deal can be renegotiated too?

And within that, there is another key question. Do the GAA actually want more games to be shown? The GAA had previously allowed 50 games to be shown in a championship summer – that figure was revised downwards to 45, perhaps an admission that the quality of game just wasn’t there to justify that amount of coverage. But the landscape has changed utterly. There are at least 50 top-class games now, possibly closer to 60.

The GAA would be unique indeed in world sport if it decided it wanted to hide its light under a bushel for the next four years, to protect a deal they signed for coverage of two tournaments that, in that form, no longer exist.

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