Joanne O’Riordan: Free to air sport better for all in the long run

Restricting drama for declining viewerships not the way forward for any sport

If the last two months of sport, from GAA to soccer, cricket to tennis and everything in between, has taught us anything, it’s that free to air viewing is where the drama is. It is officially now where the cool kids sit to have their lunch.

Seriously, paying for Sky is old news now, and the viewing figures are suggesting a solution is needed.

The Champions League final is European soccer’s pinnacle for clubs, and it is usually a global spectacle that we are told is watched by nearly half the planet. Who doesn’t love the drama, the VAR, the goals, the strong tackles . . . well, apparently, just 6.5 million people in the UK love it.

And while that viewing figure seems like a lot when you translate that into subscriptions being paid, if you look back 20 years to one of the greatest comebacks of all time, the audience peaked at 18.8 million. Sure, finals would always attract the big numbers, but it is still an incredible drop as the demand for sport and access to sport grows.


Wimbledon and the Cricket World Cup also demanded audiences attention throughout the month, but I think the rise of cricket is one to be admired, even if, like me, you have no clue as to what’s going on. Since the UK Government took cricket off the list of protected broadcast events, viewing numbers have collapsed dramatically.

Having had Sky in our house since we moved in, it was only when I became a cheap Erasmus student I realised how much sport I was actually missing without freeloading from my dad. I gave up, rang my dad, and asked him to put an extra €2 a month onto his bill so I could stream Sky on my Xbox. The sad reality is, families are at breaking point, and many have no other option but to sacrifice their love of sport.

Sky Sports would always keep their viewing figures close to their chest, but in 2015 for the Ashes they were well under half a million.

And while the England and Wales cricket boards will rightfully argue that Sky’s money has helped out with their debt, the real story suggests that the fewer eyes that are on the cricket, the more and more we see clubs being disbanded or barely keeping their head above water.

Some 4.5million tuned in to the whole final but just over 8 million watched captain Eoin Morgan lift the World Cup. Moments like that last a lifetime . . . if people get to see them in the first place.

Short term

Wimbledon is another example of how to keep the sport alive by not resorting to short-term capitalism. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer’s final will live long in the memory of the 9.6 million viewers who tuned in to see the two powerhouses slog it out over a gruelling 4 hours and 57 minutes.

Again, if WTA and those involved in Wimbledon put their games behind a paywall, games like this would never see the light of day.

The main question that we should ask ourselves as sports fans is whether the short term gain is enough when looking at the potential long term issue. Cricket suffered a massive dent in its popularity in the UK, and despite competing with Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix also on Channel 4, it managed to hold out on its own. Sure, it was a game for the ages, but behind a paywall, games for the ages and regular games all merge into one because viewership is diminished.

Even as women’s sport is now beginning to come to the forefront, fans, employees and everyone in between must ask themselves the same question. Sure, we could go along the line of the GAA and of cricket and lend our games to Sky to make a quick buck, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In general, Sky’s coverage gives it a more vibrant feel and a form of professionalism you don’t really get on free to air. But when families are tuning in in their millions, or hundreds of thousands in Ireland’s case, it gives you a better platform to launch from.

Free to air viewing ensures significant moments are seen by all, and while we’re all not enamoured by some Souness negativity or Ronnie Whelan’s flip-flopping, we must ensure that sport remains for all. The quick buck is of high importance, sure, but if you have no participants to invest that quick buck in, it really does not matter in the end.

So, as we all get ready for the various seasons to kick off again, take a look at your bills and ask yourself the value of it. While it is exciting to have sport at the touch of a button, it’s the boys, girls, men and women, kicking around every weekend afternoon that are the real victims in the end.