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.