“Giving with one hand and taking with the other” is about the best description of the landmark deal made on Monday between Sky Sports and the GAA. The decision by the GAA to hand over television rights to Sky Sports will not be received well by the grassroots of the GAA.
On the one hand , from the perspective of the deal breakers in the GAA , this deal has achieved a cherished ambition of spreading the coverage of live games beyond this island and to Britain in particular , with Sky Sports. Against the background of allowing subscription channel Setanta Sports show pay-per-view League games , it was always likely that when it came to the championships , the GAA would eventually dance with a subscription partner. Indeed , many of their top dogs in power have been adoring Sky Sports in-depth coverage for years , hoping that the channel would realise the commercial potential in the GAA. That has now come to pass and starting on June 7 , when Kilkenny play Offaly in the Leinster hurling championship , Sky Sports will play a very significant role in the Irish sporting summer. While there may be a solid commercial and financial basis underpinning the GAA’s decision , they will quickly find out , just as players have over many years , that League and Championship are two different ball games altogether. The public may not have been overly maddened by being unable to watch Saturday night league games on Setanta Sports but will press the outrage button at the prospect of missing championship action.
Anger against the decision is set to be further whipped up by TV3 and RTE , who obviously have a vested interest in portraying the deal with Sky as a cross between treason and malice. RTE weighed in heavily on this point on Monday night and came out all guns blazing against the decision. RTE stood up gallantly for hard-pressed consumers and the grass roots of the GAA , but if you take a more measured view , they also probably don’t want Sky anywhere near the GAA for their own commercial reasons. Tv3 also reacted angrily to being essentially ‘shoved out’ in favour of Sky Sports with their statement saying that their bid to continue championship coverage “appears to have been superseded by the GAA’s preference for a pay television strategy”. This could be seen as whinging from bad losers , but can you really blame RTE and TV3 for fighting their corner?
It wont take long though to gauge how successful the new deal is in television terms. Will Sky Sports bring a new , innovative approach? And if so , how will RTE , who it must be said have done an excellent job on the championship over many years , react? Competition is good in every walk of life and a challenge from Sky could be exactly what RTE needs to take its coverage to another level. If that’s the case then us, the people will gain, and it may force the GAA’s hand not to grant any more coverage to Sky. However , many opponents of this deal understandably argue that this deal may well be the start of something slow and sinister and that if the arrangement works well , it could lead to the subscription channel demanding more and tightening its grip in the next deal. This is a very relevant point , especially when you look at how Sky Sports and Rupert Murdoch commercialised the English football brand into what it is today as the Barclays Premier League , in 1993.
At the same time, as new viewers all around the world and especially the Irish diaspora are being well facilitated by this deal and deserve to be , Sky will be closing the door on thousands of people all over Ireland who do not have Sky and many of whom who will be unwilling or unable financially to buy a Sky subscription. Many devoted and passionate GAA members at the grassroots level of the organisation are heartbroken that they may not be able to see 14 games in this years championship because they have never had Sky and have absolutely no intention of spending their scarce money on a subscription as other sports do not interest them. And , so this is the major downside of the deal , all those men that line the pitches , the men that voluntarily go down to coach at the local club , the members on the club boards feel like they have been ‘sold-out’ by the GAA and no doubt the GAA are painfully aware of this.
They in their own wisdom felt that this was a sacrifice worth bearing for the greater good of the GAA , to push GAA coverage onto many more television sets around the world. Channel 7 in Australia , for instance , will show all the televised games live in 2014 including Sky Sports games , which will certainly appeal to the recent droves of Irish who have emigrated to the country. But won’t it be ironic when the grandson of a recent Irish emigrant phones his grandad in Ireland half a world away about a game that has just ended on Channel 7 in Australia. How do you think the grandad will feel about the fact that he cannot watch the same match in his own kitchen? As for the youth of Ireland , the GAA has carefully cultivated this market with great success in recent years. Once again though , you would wonder how the young people (the future of the organisation) will feel if and when they are unable to watch big games live this summer as it will certainly not be well received.
On a more broad note , the history of amateur sports that became subject to pay-per-view usually sees them going professional as a sport , with rugby union being the best example. It is too soon for these horror stories about GAA games falling into that mire , but , as historian Paul Rouse claimed on Monday , this Sky venture “is not just the thin edge of the wedge , it is the whole edge” and in future years we can be sure Sky’s presence and influence on our national games will increase – for better or worse. Surely though , a broad discussion and even a vote by Congress should take place before the next deal is struck so that negotiators know the views of the GAA membership and not just their own. In the meantime however , the GAA faces a big challenge in selling the Sky Sports deal to its membership.
Pundit Arena, Tadhg Creedon.