Head-to-Head: Should The GAA Stick With Sky Sports?

 
 

With Sky renewing their deal to show exclusive GAA championship matches, Conall Cahill and Marty ‘Sports Fiend’ Healy debate whether the deal should continue.

CONALL CAHILL SAYS: “HELL, YES!”

PITY the GAA in this conundrum. No matter which side you come down on, it’s hard not to appreciate the quandary Paraic Duffy (GAA Secretary General) et al found themselves in when Sky came knocking on the Association’s door, all shiny teeth and slicked-back hair, armed with a massive briefcase of cash (“There’s more where that came from, too”) and a thousand tantalising promises. Duffy’s mind must have been racing at a hundred miles an hour at this time, all sorts of conflicting thoughts battling for prominence. This is borne out by the fact that he initially reassured Gaels that the Association would not sell TV rights to Sky, before changing his mind just a few months later.

One imagines the organisation’s hierarchy revelling on the high ground having refused Sky’s deal, the GAA proletariat gratefully kissing their feet. But then, perhaps, they saw the slickly-packaged Premier League and how Sky has (despite its critics) advanced coverage of soccer at the top level. They thought of what they could achieve with the millions Sky would pump into the organisation. And, perhaps, they observed the direction in which other sports were travelling and decided they should follow.

It’s easy to throw out the caricature of the ‘Grab All Association’

The GAA is not FIFA or the IAAF. Aogán Ó Fearghail is not Sepp Blatter or Lamine Diack. The decision to join with Sky wasn’t some morally corrupt attempt to screw over the humble GAA member. Around this time last year at the GAA’s Annual Congress, Duffy stressed the importance of ensuring “the existence of a genuine market for our games… this flexibility and freedom is crucial if we are to… ensure that the GAA achieves the proper value for its rights”.

In other words: the GAA is a highly valuable product and shouldn’t sell itself short. A balance has to be achieved between the GAA’s commercial potential and the need for ordinary members to access matches.

There was a famous photo in 2015 from the town of Balla in county Mayo that featured a packed living room of people watching the All-Ireland quarter-final between Mayo and Donegal (which was exclusively on Sky Sports) as well as people watching from outside, through the windows. If the ‘anti-Sky’ movement were to try and formulate propaganda material, they would struggle to create a better image. But balance this off against the €55 million the GAA are set to earn from the latest (five-year) Sky deal.

According to last year’s annual accounts report, that is basically the same as the total revenue for 2015. It’s easy to throw out the caricature of the ‘Grab All Association’, but making people go to the pub or a neighbour’s house to watch a couple of games a year is arguably worth it in terms of developing the games on a broader scale.

The GAA’s argument that the Sky deal would improve emigrants’ ability to watch games was deftly tossed aside by UCD history lecturer Paul Rouse in a fine article for the Irish Examiner. He pointed out Premier Sports, who for years had provided this service to those living outside of Ireland. But perhaps the real international aspect of the Sky deal is that the GAA feels it needs to attach itself to the broadcasting giant in order not to be left behind in the quickly expanding world of sports media.

Sky arguably has a greater potential than RTÉ, TV3 or eir Sport in terms of bringing Gaelic Games coverage up to the level that meets the expectations of the modern consumer

Coverage of sport – from soccer to baseball – is more extensive than ever, with that coverage being ever more advanced and in-detail. This leads to a lack of patience with products that aren’t quite up to the usual level; viewers’ standards when watching sport – ironically even when watching for free via online streams – are higher than ever. Combine this with the huge variety of entertainment options available to us and there is very little tolerance for below-par products on our televisions or computer screens.

Nothing good on TV? We’ll watch Netflix. Michael Owen boring us to tears on BT Sport? We’ll watch a clip of Carragher and Neville on YouTube. Stale GAA coverage? We’ll scroll through Facebook or Twitter and see what people are saying there. The GAA are trying to figure out how to keep pace with these huge expectations among modern-day consumers – and Sky Sports has proven itself well able to satisfy the needs of the modern sports fan.

Even if it is experiencing teething problems in its GAA coverage, Sky arguably has greater potential than RTÉ, TV3 or eir Sport in terms of bringing Gaelic Games coverage up to the next level, the level that meets the expectations of the demanding modern consumer.

In an ideal world, would the GAA be able to keep its doors closed to Sky and pay-per-view games? Yes, of course. But the alternative to the GAA jumping onto the screaming, rich, modern Sky train is the organisation remaining at a standstill, conservatively rooting around in its pockets for spare change while wishing it had shown the courage to step into the twenty-first century.

MARTY ‘SPORTS FIEND’ HEALY SAYS: NO WAY, GAA!

BACK when England won the 2005 Ashes series in cricket, the climactic Sunday was watched by over 8.2 million people on Channel 4. It was England’s first Ashes title in nearly 20 years, and their victory was a massive PR explosion for cricket throughout the UK.

Starting a GAA article talking about cricket might be enough to make a diehard GAA fan combust in sheer rage, but nonetheless it makes for an interesting example. Cricket has greatly suffered in popularity since its peak in 2005, since free-to-air cricket all but disappeared from British TV screens. Sky’s love of cricket is second only to Premier League football, as even the most casual Sky Sports News viewer will attest to. The move from free-to-air TV to paid satellite stations, while filling the coffers of those running the sport, has severely slashed the amount of people who have access to watching the sport.

The deal cuts out the casual fans, the ones who drive championship games to massive viewing figure

The most recent Ashes saw viewing figures of just 467,000 on the final day. So while this may keep accounts in black for cricket administrators, it cannibalises the next generation of cricket fans.

Sky has recently announced it has renewed its on-going commitment to broadcasting live All-Ireland Championship matches in Ireland and the UK. The new deal will see Sky broadcast 14 exclusive live championship matches, while also sharing the broadcast of the All-Ireland semi-finals with RTÉ.

This deal has been hugely controversial amongst GAA fans since its inception. While change is viewed with a dollop of suspicion amongst most sport fans, the Sky deal has drawn the ire of a huge swath of long-standing GAA fans. And it’s not hard to see why.

The viewing figures speak for themselves: only 32,000 people tuned into the 2015 All-Ireland Hurling final between Galway and Kilkenny on Sky. In 2013, the Donegal/Mayo football quarter-final attracted 442,800 viewers on TV3, where the same match in 2015 drew a mere 48,300 on Sky.

Such differences in the viewing figures are ridiculous – so it begs the question of why the GAA would renew this deal in the first place? The Irish Independent values the new deal at around €55 million. Although eir Sport and TV3 (now backed by Virgin Media) have some money to throw around in this field, neither can compete with the News Corporation-backed media super titan of Sky. For an organisation desperate to stay relevant in the modern media world, GAA feel like they can’t refuse such a valuable deal.

This decision, however, is not wise in the long-run. Just like with cricket, important and major championship matches are not being viewed by the casual GAA viewer. If you’re completely committed to the sport, either you’re at the game yourself or you’ll commit to a comprehensive service like GAAGO if you’re abroad. The deal cuts out the casual fans, the ones who drive championship games to massive viewing figures, the ones who get companies interested in sponsoring the All-Ireland championships.

If the championship becomes consumed by hardcore fans alone, you end up with the meagre viewing figures of league games. Then advertising revenue drops, what position does that put the GAA in then?

If the GAA want to break into the British market, it’s clear Britain doesn’t really care

Both hurling and Gaelic football already suffer from a huge number of filler fixtures, even when it gets to quarter or semi-final time. There are only a handful of counties that can compete at the very top level, so most fans can just stay away until the combination involving Dublin/Kerry/Mayo/Donegal in semi-finals takes place. At least if the game was on RTÉ or TV3, you might be inclined to stick it on.

If the GAA want to break into the British market, it’s clear Britain doesn’t really care. How could the sport break into the British market? It would be nearly impossible. The MLS in the US has taken decades to pump money into fledging interests in soccer, but even after all these years, growth is incredibly slow.

Championship games serve as mere filler during the summer months, while Sky Sports ignores whatever international tournament they don’t have the rights for. Championship games serve as a nice break from the Kabaddi (g’wan the Jaipur Pink Panthers) followed by an episode or two of the Premiership Years. GAA, like Kabbadi, is very popular in its country of origin, but nobody outside the expat community in the UK cares about the sport beyond mild curiosity.

If the GAA are so infatuated with getting their funds from Sky, maybe they should start passing this windfall onto the actual players who are playing for three-quarters of the year for club and county. The GAA already has its slick GAAGO service for fans abroad, so the Sky deal is just unnecessary. The GAA has a massive interest in keeping its sports healthy, so what is the point of big championship matches if only a tenth of the usual crowd watch it?

Advertisements