Virgin Media customers to miss out on many league GAA games

Allianz League games previously shown on Setanta will not be broadcast on Virgin

Changes to the availability of the Eir Sport TV package will impact on the potential live viewership of the 2017 Allianz Leagues, with further implications for the GAA's new media rights, agreement for which is now "imminent".

The GAA's current media rights deal across all platforms - TV, radio and online - expires at the end of the 2017 league, with the new agreement then running for three years, 2017-2019, starting from next summer's championship. Few major changes are expected and there is almost certain to be a continuation of the Sky Sports package despite increasing objection at county council level and also from the Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air group.

RTÉ, still the principal rights holder and who had the rights to 31 live championships matches under the current deal, is however facing stronger competition this time from the likes of Eir Sport and TV3.

In the meantime Eir Sport has taken over the remaining existing rights to the live Saturday evening games in the Allianz Leagues, which previously went out on Setanta Sports: Eir Sport acquired Setanta at the end of 2015 for a reported €20 million and rebranded the station earlier this year. The station is also now looking to expand its live GAA coverage into the championship.


However, a disagreement with the Virgin Media platform (formally UPC), who had provided Setanta and also initially Eir Sport, means those league games will no longer be available to a substantial audience. Virgin, who have just over 300,000 mostly urban subscribers, dropped the Eir Sport package, which includes BT Sport, at the end of July after it failed to agree commercial terms on a wholesale arrangement for the six channels.

While Eir Sport is still available free through its own Eir broadband service or as part of their Eir Vision TV bundle deal, and also to order on other platforms such as Sky and Vodafone, this will impact on the potential viewership for the 2017 Saturday evening live league games. In the 2016 league, Setanta showed 17 live Saturday evening games, 11 in football and six in hurling, including most of Dublin's home games in Croke Park.

According to an Eir Sport spokesperson: "Each week, we are continuously adding more and more subscribers to the Eir Sport pack through our Eir Vision TV and Eir broadband offers as a result of the content we offer. It is too soon to speculate on the potential viewing figures for next year's Allianz League. Virgin Media customers cannot access the Eir Sport pack on the Virgin Media platform at this time."

This also has the potential to impact on the 2017-2019 GAA media rights deal, depending on what way that is split up: Eir will be keen to keep or expand their TV rights especially given they are also now one of the headline sponsors of the championship.

While the new GAA media rights deal does have the potential for a minor shake-up, RTÉ is still likely to be the main player. It currently has exclusive rights to 25 games, with 14 games exclusive to the Sky Sports, with a further six games - the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals in both football and hurling - shown by both broadcasters.

It was April 2014 when the current media rights deal was announced, the Sky package causing a media storm of its own at the time. The success of the deal has been open to question and also its fairness, and just last month, the Kerry County Council was the latest to unanimously pass a motion calling on the GAA to end its contract with subscription-based sports channels to broadcast its games. Galway County Council unanimously passed a similar motion, proposed by Independent councillor and member of Tuam GAA club Shaun Cunniffe, who is also the spokesman for the Keep Gaelic Games Free to Air group.

According to Alan Milton, head of GAA media operations, the issue was fully addressed at Congress earlier this year, when a motion submitted by the Dublin county board to make all GAA games free-to-air was heavily defeated, only 15.3 per cent voting in favour, while 84.7 per cent effectively voted to allow some pay-per-view.

“Congress adjudged, last February, to give the team charged with this to negotiate the best possible deal for the GAA,” said Milton. “There was a wide debate on it, at all levels of the Association, and I think for Congress to take the stance in took, last February, was a realistic reflection, and why the Association would tie one hand behind it’s back in the negotiations.

“So there are no restrictions on it. And there haven’t been any restrictions on it. We’d expect there will be some changes, but not a major shake-up.”

The Government free-to-air list, which is presently under review, does include several major sporting events but the All-Ireland finals only, as well as football’s European Championships and World Cup.

On the broader TV media rights deal, Milton said: “There is a process to go through, with our respective partners, and that has been ongoing for a number of months, but that is now imminent. And everything is basically on course.

“It will be divided again into several ‘packages’, for ease of negotiation, so that there are clear parameters in terms of who gets what, or what they’re in contention for. And it will likely be along similar lines. And it is common knowledge, in the industry, that the contracts have expired, so there’s no secret. Everyone who is in that space would have been aware of it and expressed their interest.”

GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, when addressing the matter recently, also said: “Well there never was a ‘Sky deal’. That’s a misnomer. There was a media rights deal and it involved Radio na Gaeltachta and it involved RTÉ and Newstalk, and Sky were part of that as well. There are many holders to the media rights. And we are delighted, there are lots more showing interest in our game all of the time. We are not in the unfortunate position that I know some sporting bodies are in where there is no media at all showing an interest.

“We have the opposite challenge: We have a lot more showing an interest in our games than we can accommodate. That’s just part of the situation of our games at the moment and we have to accommodate everybody. We are discussing with everybody and we will conclude another media rights deal in the best interest of our members and the wider viewership.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics