GAA unwise not to facilitate a discussion of Sky deal at congress

There is a sound argument in favour of the current broadcasting rights allocation

The decision not to allow a motion to congress on the issue of subscription broadcast coverage of championship matches was a mistake.

Not alone did it prevent what would have been a welcome discussion of the Sky deal but it meant the GAA squandered an opportunity to have last April’s controversial decision approved by the biggest representative gathering of the association.

It was clear from the tone and substance of some of Páraic Duffy's comments in his annual report that the Croke Park administration is indignant at being painted as losing touch with ordinary members in what is characterised as its headlong pursuit of commercial deals and revenue. The director general laid out in painstaking detail the rationale behind the biggest relevant controversies from last year – American football forcing the relocation of an All-Ireland semi-final replay, the Garth Brooks saga and probably the most bitterly contested issue, the Sky Sports deal.

“Whether we like it or not,” he wrote, “commercial and marketing factors are a feature of the world in which the GAA must operate, and the allocation of broadcast rights is vital to the well-being of the association from a number of perspectives, i.e. the proper promotion of our games, the standard to which the games are promoted on broadcast media, the territories in which our games are broadcast, our ability to negotiate from a position of strength in a very competitive sports-viewing market, and, of course, the revenue generated by the sale of broadcast rights to our games . . .”


The books

Essentially Duffy’s attitude was that critics of the GAA don’t have to balance the books. This is a reasonable perspective so why not allow a debate? Clare sent forward the motion from its county convention. Submitted by the Ennis club Éire Óg, the proposal was a little complicated in that instead of simply disapproving of the Sky allocation or opposing exclusive deals with subscription broadcasters, it called for matches covered by any such deals to be also available on terrestrial television.

It was rejected for inclusion on the clár under Rule 3.36 (d) on the basis that it doesn’t amend or enact a rule.

The above rule defines the functions of the GAA’s annual congress and the relevant subsection lists amongst those functions, “To consider motions and to enact, amend or rescind rules”.

Under this it would be permissible to debate the Clare proposal, as the consideration of motions is clearly separate from the enacting, amending or rescinding of rules.

Further enquiry of Croke Park elicited the explanation that due to the amount of housekeeping required by the rule book, it has been policy for a number of years not to debate general ideas like Clare’s but to restrict the motions agenda to those pertaining to the rules of the Official Guide.

This is valid enough given that during the past five years, there has been an average of more than 77 motions listed on the clár. Were there to be a section on more general policy points – as there was in the past, for instance the annual Crossmaglen motion – congress running time would end up much extended.

Of these 387 motions over the past five year, just three didn't fall within a broad interpretation 3.36 (d) and one of those concerned the seeking of advice from the GAA's Rules Advisory Committee. The other two were competing motions concerned with recognising the Gaelic Players Association and bringing it under the umbrella of Croke Park. Strictly speaking this did entail rule change but can be included, as the debate was conceptual in nature.

Anyway, although it was within its rights, the GAA would have been better advised to make an exception in respect of the Clare proposal. There is understandable apprehension within Croke Park that if the decision went against them, it could tie their hands in respect of future commercial decisions.

Within the GAA that feeling is acute given the years during which they had to deal with a monopoly broadcaster. None the less it’s equally important to make the case to your core audience even if the belief in headquarters is that there is no serious unrest amongst the membership on this issue.

In the past Páraic Duffy has expressed disappointment that his extensive annual report (this year, more than 23,000 words) inspires so little discussion beyond polite expressions of gratitude that he wrote it in the first place and by and large congress delegates don’t appear comfortable debating issues unless there’s a vote at the end.

This would have been an ideal opportunity to discuss something that was controversial last year and allow an exchange of views.

There is a sound argument in favour of the current broadcasting rights allocation but there are also questions to answer, principally whether the benefits of dealing with Sky – financial in that they pay more than TV3 did, enhanced promotion and advertising, having some existing audience already subscribed and higher production values in Britain in that they’re not simply relaying match coverage – outweigh the disadvantages – a higher cost for non-Sky subscribers in Britain and the introduction of a championship pay wall in Ireland.

It’s unlikely the GAA in Croke Park feel inhibited about justifying the broadcasting deal but they do run the risk of having the reluctance to debate the matter depicted as a simple case of running scared.