I had an American friend in town last weekend. Brian Murphy, of KNBR radio in San Francisco, has been talking to me and my colleagues in our various iterations for over 12 years, and his contributions on the Irish Times Second Captains podcast have made him a bit of a cult hero among our listenership.
On Sunday afternoon, he texted me to tell me he was sitting in his hotel room in Dublin, enthralled by the All-Ireland senior ladies' club final between Donaghmoyne and Foxrock-Cabinteely on TG4. The language barrier didn't seem to be much of a problem for him, because he later told me he stuck around to watch the highlights of the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final replay which apparently followed the ladies' final. He couldn't understand a word, but nevertheless loved the enthusiasm of the "play-by-play guys" – that's the men in the bosca tráchtaire to me and you.
The 20th birthday of TG4, last Hallowe’en, drew quite a bit of attention, and its sports coverage got its fair share of praise then, as it has done pretty much since it began. TG4’s head of sport Rónán Ó Coisdealbha spoke around the time of the anniversary about how many of the station’s acquisitions were based on what it could get, as much as what it wanted to show.
What it could get was as much of the GAA as it wanted, apart from the senior intercounty championships. So that’s what it started to show. And it turns out that the GAA fan isn’t all that discerning. What we wanted was games – in all colours, shapes and sizes. TG4 was able to provide that.
It has had a number of key effects, beyond being a real source of entertainment every week for hundreds of thousands of viewers. It has had a huge impact on how ladies’ football is viewed in clubs around the country, and when the inevitable happens and the camogie and ladies’ football associations become fully signed-up members of the GAA (as opposed to being two separate entities, operating alongside but not within the organisation), TG4 will have played its part.
When TG4 covers live ladies’ football games, it’s the same broadcast teams, the same commentators – that stuff makes a difference. It covers it in exactly the same way as the other strand of its GAA coverage, and has fast-tracked the normalisation of female participation in our games.
It has, of course, raised the profile of the club game. And it has made the Under-21 hurling championship one of the most reliably brilliant televisual spectacles of the summer. You might need to be reminded every so often on a beautiful summer’s evening to stay indoors and watch, but they seldom disappoint. I’ve lost count of the number of stone-cold classics I’ve turned on with 15 minutes already gone in the first half on a Wednesday evening in July.
GAA Beo on TG4 has also helped to usher the F-bomb back into the public consciousness, if it had ever left. For every media-veteran intercounty star picking up a man-of-the-match award in the immediate aftermath of games, there’s a young man (it’s mostly the men, but I’m sure I’ve seen one or two women too) who has just given the performance of his life, in the biggest game of his life, only to find himself on live national television moments after the final whistle. The miracle is not that the air briefly turns blue in every third one of these interviews, but that it doesn’t happen even more often.
There is a timeless quality to TG4’s coverage. It shows games deferred, for instance, which is pretty astonishing in the social media age. And the lurking man in the background on his mobile phone, waving to his friends while games are being analysed, is a winter Sunday afternoon staple, matched only in frequency at Cheltenham or the Galway Races.
But TG4 understands a central tenet of sports broadcasting, one which is sometimes lost by high-profile analysts tweeting about viewership figures as if they’re the central reason people are tuning in. People don’t come to watch the coverage, they come to watch the sport. We enjoy the coverage, and pick it apart sometimes, and bellyache about analysts certainly a lot more than we should, but the sport’s the thing.
There is also something about the actual production values of the coverage itself. No matter the occasion, and no matter the weather, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill will be pitch-side, with a small plinth in front of him the only nod to TV production norms. We are left in no doubt that we are watching the hardy perennials of the GAA world. Often, with five minutes to go to throw-in, he will say goodbye to one of his analysts, and a minute after throw-in that man will reappear as our co-commentator.
They’re there because they love it, and the same probably goes for those of us watching too. That enthusiasm is so clear, even the man from California could feel it.