Sky Sports was the only British broadcaster interested in screening Gaelic games, GAA director general Páraic Duffy has said. Mr Duffy told the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications it was "Sky or nothing" when it came to broadcasting Gaelic football or hurling matches on television in the UK.
The GAA had offered the free-to-air broadcasters in the UK – BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – tender documents but none had expressed interest other than the BBC, and that was only for Ulster championship games, he said.
In a robust defence of the GAA decision to sell the rights to Sky Sports to televise 14 games on the subscription channel, Mr Duffy said the decision was taken solely for the sake of the Irish diaspora. It was "no longer tenable" for the GAA to see its audience as simply being Irish people who live in Ireland, he said.
Sky Sports will be able to broadcast GAA matches into homes in Britain for the first time, increasing exposure for the games.
Mr Duffy said there were now 392 GAA clubs abroad – twice as many as a decade ago. “It is simply not possible for the GAA to ensure free-to-air coverage at home while at the same time making its games accessible to Irish people abroad,” he said. He said he believed the GAA had got the balance right.
Mr Duffy also revealed that the joint GAA-RTÉ Digital deal, which will allow the public to access GAA matches abroad, will be a subscription service and "major start-up costs" would be incurred to make it available overseas. He anticipated that it would not be a "particularly profitable" avenue for the GAA.
He said RTÉ had tendered for 31 games and got 31 games. Of the 18 most important games, only two were not free to air, he pointed out.
TDs and Senators were evenly divided on the deal. Fianna Fáil spokesman on transport, tourism and sport Timmy Dooley said he could not afford a Sky subscription and many other Irish people who were loyal servants of the GAA could not either.
Sinn Féin TD Michael Colreavy said the Sky deal was "paying middle men" when the games could have made available on the internet for everyone.
“There was an opportunity for using RTÉ Digital,” he said.
GAA president Liam O’Neill said that since the deal was announced two weeks ago, nobody in his parish had said anything negative to him about it. He joked that a minor adjustment to the GAA’s Scór competition had got him more flak.
Mr O’Neill said he had had sleepless nights about the deal.
“I have worried about it every day since and I’ll continue to worry about it until I see how the first year rolls out until I see it being a success,” he said. “I have all the fears you have and more because it is our name on it. We did not take this decision lightly. We will be forever associated it. We hope we made the right decision.”
He added that the issue of being able to see matches from home was the only one that was raised “time and time again” abroad.