Social price paid for new Sky deal may prove costly to the GAA

The organisation has prioritised its commercial ambitions above its broader social and cultural goals

The Dublin and Mayo teams walk behind the band during the pre-match parade before the All-Ireland football final last September. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

The Dublin and Mayo teams walk behind the band during the pre-match parade before the All-Ireland football final last September. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

The GAA’s deal with Sky TV may not warrant an outraged reaction, but it does merit serious scrutiny and raises legitimate issues of concern for GAA members.

Not all GAA members, of course. There will doubtless be many among the Association’s rank and file who will delight in the deal and welcome the prospects of additional revenues and a Sky-style shake-up of Gaelic games coverage.

But there will also be a substantial body of opinion which will feel distinctly uneasy about a deal which not only jettisons a long-established policy, but which, in its effects, will almost certainly conflict with values the GAA routinely invokes to assert the uniqueness of its contribution to Irish life.

What has happened this week is certainly a radical departure for the GAA.

For all that that they have attempted to downplay the number of games wrapped in the Sky package of rights, this is no gentle toe-dip by the Association into pay-per-view waters; it is a straightforward plunge. RTE’s quota of championship fixtures may remain intact, but TV3 have been cleared from the pitch to make way for the pay TV provider who will have exclusive rights to just under one third of all live championship games.

Occasional kite-flying exercises aside (usually calculated to leverage additional revenues from existing rights holders), the GAA has now gone where it has repeatedly said it wouldn’t go.

Back in 1997, at a time when the GAA had already begun to relax its rules on the sponsorship and broadcasting of its competitions, then president, Jack Boothman, told delegates to Annual Congress that “the GAA can never in conscience decide to sell television rights to any media provider who will be widely available throughout the country and which will not be national in character. We are not going to sell our people down the river for money”.

As recently as last year, it appeared as if nothing much had changed when GAA director general Páraic Duffy, as decent and committed a man as has held that rarefied office, talked to journalist Michael Moynihan for his book, Gaaconomics . He was equally adamant that a flight from free-to-air was not on the horizon.

Stay relevant
“With our TV we’re constrained, rightly, because we wouldn’t get away with selling the rights to the championship to Sky Sports or somebody like that,” he told Moynihan, adding, “I could go out tomorrow and Sky will offer us four or five time what RTÉ are offering, but I know if I came back to management with that, the organisation would say to me, ‘Get out of here. We’re not doing that’.

Any organisation, of course, is entitled to change its mind, to alter its course. Indeed, to stay relevant, it often has no choice. The GAA is no stranger to shifting strategy and has done so frequently over the decades, not least in the hugely successful manner in which it has expanded its commercial operations.

But in this, as in other major strategic initiatives, the progression of policy has always been directed in way that has shored up its social ascendancy and strengthened its underlying values – values which emphasise community, inclusivity, participation and access.

It’s for this reason the GAA’s Sky deal strikes a discordant note. Whatever about the undoubted strengths they will bring to Gaelic games coverage, the Sky sports experience has been shown to fracture community, not to cement it.

There is no ambiguity around this. The evidence is clear-cut. As UCD historian Paul Rouse emphasised this week, the moving of sport from free-to-air to pay-per-view has been proven not only to reduce overall audiences but to divide viewers into those who can and can’t pay.

One striking example cited was that of Heineken Cup rugby, which moved from free-to-air to subscription television between 2006 and 2007. In both years, Leinster contested Heineken Cup quarter-finals, though the audience for their games plummeted from 255,000 (on RTÉ) to 47,000 (on Sky).

Social groupings
Ireland’s Heineken Cup example, which is mirrored in other countries and for other codes, also shows how the loss of free-to-air coverage impacts disproportionately on a range of specific social groupings.

The lessons of all this for GAA members and followers are not difficult to grasp.

If you’re poor or from a rural background, then it’s far less likely you’ll be accessing Gaelic games on Sky television. If you’re elderly, a farmer, a child or a woman, the same holds true. And for those of you who do watch, children included, you’re far more likely to do so in a pub than at home.

None of this is debatable, yet it appears to have weighed little on the GAA’s decision-making, even though it quite obviously undercuts a range of other social initiatives for which the Association should be quite rightly acclaimed, be it the programme to target social marginalisation in rural areas or that to reduce the exposure of its younger members to alcohol environments.

So why was the decision taken? Since Tuesday, the GAA has made much of their concern with catering to the legitimate and necessary needs of Ireland’s emigrants. But a deal with Sky was hardly required to do that – a point underscored by the provision of a new online streaming service for overseas audiences in the very same rights package.

Broaden appeal
There’s been some talk too of using Sky to broaden appeal beyond the diaspora, but surely any plan to internationalise Gaelic games is required to be fore-grounded by a much deeper, and wide-ranging debate across the Association. What should such a plan involve and is it even desirable? If it is, how should it be resourced and where could it be effectively targeted? One thing is for certain, however – exposure is not the same as development.

Most likely, of course, none of these were overriding factors in the GAA’s siding with Sky. This was, above all else, a commercial decision, albeit one that appears unchecked by reference to wider obligations.

Indeed, for many GAA members, it is this that will rankle as much as the loss of free-to-air access to some of the forthcoming championship games.

One of the things that has most distinguished the GAA and set it apart from all other major sporting organisations has been the brilliant balancing of its commercial ambitions with broader social and cultural objectives.

However, given what we know about how pay TV works and how it will limit audiences and disadvantage those without the means to afford it, it’s hard to suppress a sense that, on this occasion, the GAA has got the balance badly wrong.

In the long run, the price paid may be more than the money won.

n Mark Duncan is a GAA member and co-author of The GAA: A People’s History

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