Free-to-air Broadcasting and the GAA

The evolution of the modern sports league is directly linked to the growth of broadcasting revenue in sport. While many see sports broadcasting as a public good, since the late 1980s there has been a general migration towards subscription-based, satellite channels. The emergence of satellite broadcasting changed the position from one where content competed for scarce distribution outlets on terrestrial television, to one where there is an abundance of spectrum competing for scarce content. The general improvement in broadcasting technology and changes to the regulatory environment have aided this movement, allowing for restricted access.

Like all sports, the GAA has adapted to this evolution. In 2014 the organisation sold broadcasting rights to BSkyB, with 20 matches shown on its Sky Sports channels, 14 of which are exclusive. The continuation of this deal to 2022 has been argued on the grounds that it promotes the game internationally and provides coverage to Irish emigrants.

Not everyone is happy with this. Speaking on The Sunday Game, RTÉ hurling analyst Michael Duignan said that “the biggest disgrace of the weekend was on Saturday evening, that the Waterford-Kilkenny wasn’t shown on free-to-air television”. He continued: “The Sky deal is so wrong on so many levels and it’s not because I’m in RTÉ working for the Sunday Game. My parents are at home. My father is 83 years of age. A savage hurling man. Why should he go to the pub? He doesn’t go to the pub to watch a match. They have enough money in the GAA. How much money do they want? What about the people who have supported it all their lives that can’t watch it? I think it’s disgraceful.”

The Broadcasting (Major Events Television Coverage) Act 1999 (Designation of Major Events) Order 2003 and Broadcasting Act 2009 do prevent “events of major importance to society” from migrating to subscription channels. The following are considered to fall under this category:

• The Summer Olympics
• The All-Ireland Senior Inter-County Football and Hurling Finals
• Ireland’s home and away qualifying games in the European Football Championship and the FIFA World Cup Tournaments
• Ireland’s games in the European Football Championship Finals Tournament and the FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament
• The opening games, the semi-finals and final of the European Football Championship Finals and the FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament
• Ireland’s games in the Rugby World Cup Finals Tournament
• The Irish Grand National and the Irish Derby
• The Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show

The Act also states that “Each of Ireland’s games in the Six Nations Rugby Football Championship is designated as an event of major importance to society for which the right of a qualifying broadcaster to provide coverage on a deferred basis on free television services should be provided in the public interest”.

In theory, far more could migrate to subscription platforms, including all provisional finals and the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals. While this is unlikely to happen, it is possible. After nearly 60 years waiting, I am sure every Waterford fan would say Saturday night’s game was of “major importance”. Those north of the Suir will obviously argue otherwise.

4 replies on “Free-to-air Broadcasting and the GAA”

“” They have enough money in the GAA. How much money do they want? What about the people who have supported it all their lives that can’t watch it? I think it’s disgraceful.””

Michael Duignan is 100% right. It was and is a disgrace.
The immediate losers are are live long GAA people, but the long term loser is the GAA itself. The reason for that is simple. It may have the money in its pocket, but the conversation about the games has been lost.

I was in Thurles on Saturday night last to see both games. The first game was a whitewash. The second game was a dramatic thriller by most standards, but it was barely in the workplace conversations on Monday. Why? Very few had seen it. In fact many GAA people will consciously not go to pubs to see the games that they have been deprived of. That epic game has been lost to the vast majority of GAA people.
Waterford had a historic victory. The GAA membership had a huge defeat.

Anecdotally of course, and these are credible anecdotes from well paced sources, the objective of the GAA was to ‘put manners’ on RTE. The GAA wanted more money, but RTE, by all accounts would not pay the ransom. Not only that, but RTE was imprudent enough to suggest best starting times for games etc.
The issue had been rankling the GAA top floor for several years, presumably rankling the money men at the top most,and a number of presidents were encouraged to deal with it, but shied away from the issue.
And finally the GAA hierarchy bit the bullet, using 80 year old plus people, live long GAA people, like Mr Duignan as cannon fodder in the their little war of manners with RTE.
But the GAA have lost the conversation about the games. How is that loss to be measured by the money men.

It is also true that the GAA hold back some games from been broadcasted live at all, under the theory that doing so will encourage higher match attendence.

As someone who loves hurling, but has lived in London for a long time. I really appreciate the opportunity to see some great hurling games on SKY. I was never able to see these games on RTE at home in London. The RTE website made viewing matches, even the highlights, outside Ireland very difficult. Now with SKY, my young son, who had no interest in the GAA, sits with me and watches some games, and is starting to take an interest in his sporting inheritance. RTE needs to make some effort for Irish people who live abroad as every other European nation does for their citizens.

Showing Ireland’s great sporting traditions to a much wider audience, is a fabulous showcase for Ireland and Irish citizens abroad. English people for the first time actually see what Croke Park is all about and it’s importance to Irish identity. The skill and dedication shown by amateur players never fails to impress those who watch the games. SKY do an excellent job in discussing the strategies employed by the teams and the close-up camera showing the skills of the players. The GAA is a hidden gym, which should be exported world-wide. New Zealand rugby has its Haka, Australia has the AFL (also shown on SKY). Isn’t it time Ireland developed its own unique brand and show the world how proud we are of it?

“RTE needs to make some effort for Irish people who live abroad as every other European nation does for their citizens.”

This isn’t fair to RTÉ. The GAA sell the rights to overseas GAA to someone else forcing them to restrict their website in this way. The GAA even require TG4 to restrict club championship games in the autumn even though they don;t bother to put these games on GAAGo.

Showcasing the GAA internationally is well and good. But in Ireland the GAA has had a unique role in that in most counties the games are not just the preserve of a few fans but known about and discussed by everyone. Putting games out of reach of most people by confining them to payTV breaks this relationship and for what purpose?

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