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RTÉ, Shamrock Rovers and the struggle for live coverage

St Patrick’s Athletic v CSKA Sofia to be broadcast live on News Now channel

“Once” says Carra and Neville, as Sky Sports ram home their Premier League coverage, “It’s only live … once!”

If only it was that simple for the Irish clubs in Europe.

Shamrock Rovers are not on television tonight. Despite being one result away from guaranteed progress to the Europa Conference League group stages, and the potential to earn €6 million in prize money, Rovers’ second leg against FC Shkupi 1927 in Skopje shall go unseen.

Dodgy streams from Albania’s Super Sport will have to suffice.


RTÉ made an editorial decision to show St Patrick’s Athletic against CSKA Sofia in Thursday’s second leg of the Europa Conference League qualifier on the News Now channel. It is their fifth live European broadcast from a possible 18 qualifiers.

Staff studio capacity is stretched to the limit in between the women’s Euros and European Athletics Championships in Munich

St Pat’s, despite little European pedigree, caught the Bulgarians cold last week thanks to Serge Atakayi’s late goal, so it could be a night to savour out Tallaght way. The game is moved to Rovers’ home ground as they are in North Macedonia and Richmond Park is not fit for purpose under Uefa rules.

It being a Bulgarian production, RTÉ does not trust the stream to put it on RTÉ2. It will look shoddy on high-definition television. Also, staff studio capacity is stretched to the limit in between the women’s Euros and European Athletics Championships in Munich.

None of this is straightforward.

So, no Rovers on the box, despite taking a 3-1 lead to Shkupi, a game that veteran players are calling the biggest of their careers.

“It would be great, obviously, if the family can watch it, but if they can’t, I’ll tell them about it afterwards,” said Rory Gaffney, the Rovers striker, tongue firmly in cheek.

Rovers manager Stephen Bradley has been openly critical of the national broadcaster.

“It’s really disappointing,” he said. “Hopefully we can get a stream for the fans to watch it back home. It is such a big game for the club and for Irish football, hopefully they can get to watch it.

“I’ve had my say on it,” Bradley added.

A year ago, when denied another live European night, he stated: “I think we’ve got to start forgetting about the TV companies that are here and refuse to show the games … As long as they are the ones that are running things, we will continue to get what we are getting.”

This puts RTÉ head of sport Declan McBennett in the crosshairs of an increasingly vocal League of Ireland lobby. McBennett regularly provides details behind attaining rights with the football family on Twitter.

“My job is to put the best of Irish sport on TV,” he told the LOI Central podcast last year.

Rovers and RTÉ have entrenched views that remain some distance apart, even if the club expressed gratitude for the coverage received to date. The RTÉ plan until this season was to show all Champions League qualifiers but Rovers’ thrilling second-leg defeat of Ludogorets went unseen as it clashed with the Lionesses trouncing Sweden in the semi-final of Euro 2022.

Seven months ago, RTÉ flagged this slot as out of bounds to both Rovers and the FAI.

Uefa scheduling and known unknowns force much of the TV rights-wrangling to be done just days before matches, usually via an agent based in Germany. Take this past week: Rovers dropped into the Europa League qualifier against Shkupi, winning on a famous, unseen night in Tallaght, but RTÉ rolled the dice with St Pat’s in Sofia and was handsomely paid off.

Nobody is entirely wrong but everyone is completely right.

Rovers are in this for the long haul. Bradley and Stephen McPhail have constructed a squad that finds itself on the cusp of Europa League qualification, and failing that they will be rerouted to the Conference League, at which point Virgin Media will need to stump up for outside broadcasts in the region of €25,000 per game.

St Pat’s could be eliminated on Thursday, so the thinking is to give them their moment on TV, but this inadvertently punishes Rovers, although they should get three prime-time European games in Tallaght stadium, and three more on the road later this year.

Virgin hold the Europa rights, RTÉ the Champions League, until 2025.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, RTÉ appear to be prioritising the spending of public money on international football. They view it as an FAI remit to grow the League of Ireland, pointing to the 67,000 average viewing figures for Rovers away to Ludogorets, while 90,000 watched the All-Ireland camogie final (in its established slot), even noting how David Clifford’s presence in a Kerry club championship quarter-final or Ulster in the United Rugby Championship — the least viewed Irish rugby province — easily outreaches Rovers in Europe.

League of Ireland sides with European ambitions point just as strongly to the need to nurture the audience and to provide certainty, by resurrecting The Soccer Republic highlights programme, to sit alongside the Sunday Game and rugby’s Against The Head.

There is strong historical evidence of RTÉ playing a major role in growing an Irish sports brand

RTÉ categorise highlights packages as the dinosaurs of sports broadcasting. Sky Sports have a point. Live is everything. RTÉ can also point to viewing figures, over and over again. Soccer Republic on Monday night never drew more than 20,000 eyeballs.

But there is strong historical evidence of RTÉ playing a major role in growing an Irish sports brand. Munster was a parochial entity in the late 1990s that exploded into the national consciousness when miracle result after miracle result was driven by live coverage on terrestrial television.

This incoming season has free-to-air rugby coverage with the URC and GAA club championships competing directly with domestic soccer. It’s a fight the Airtricity League cannot win. Not with health and safety concerns around broadcasting from grounds like Oriel Park. Not with RTÉ giving the full Montrose treatment to the Republic of Ireland women’s side on the cusp of World Cup qualification and the Under-21s upcoming playoff against Israel.

RTÉ strongly believe that they carry their fair share of the Irish soccer load as much as Rovers and other clubs are disillusioned by the national broadcaster missing progressive scenes, like Ludogorets in Tallaght, Dundalk in Holland, Bohemians at the Aviva.

In an era of downsized budgets in Dublin 4, the League of Ireland suffers more than most. Viewing figures allow RTÉ to justify what GAA and rugby are aired, as football’s green shoots bemoan the inability to grow without sunlight.

Again, nobody is entirely wrong but everyone is completely right.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent