The Sky’s The Limit In A Race To The Bottom on
Wednesday April 26, 2017
   // The Sky’s The Limit In A Race To The Bottom
06
Apr

“The GAA hierarchy are like the pigs in Animal Farm. Repeating the mantras of volunteerism & community while doing the opposite.” Joe Brolly in the aftermath of the GAA’s deal with Sky Sports.

It was a measure of the changing nature of Gaelic Games that if a story of the GAA selling television rights to Sky appeared in the news ten years ago on April Fools’ Day it would have been instantly recognised as a trick for the day that’s in it. But not anymore, the fact the GAA had already made a deal with Setanta in previous years, the fact that Sky have become incredibly aggressive in the Irish market in recent times and of course the fact that the deal was cynically flighted to the press a week ago to try and restrict the fallout, all meant that once the official announcement came, we all knew that this was no prank. Sky are here and as is their wont they are here to stay.

There is a temptation-and many have succumbed to it- to describe this as some sort of a natural progression the GAA must take as a sports organisation in the modern era, that taking money from Rupert Murdoch means little as the IRFU and the FAI have done it along with everyone else. The contention has also been put forward that a few exclusive pay for the privilege championship games is insignificant because RTÉ will still show the vast majority of the games. Not only are these people wrong, they also clearly know nothing of or are forgetting about the history of the GAA and its supposed ethos.

The GAA have always done things their own way. They see themselves as and are in many ways a unique expression of Irish culture and therefore don’t abide by the rules that many other sports do of trying to avoid politics altogether. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in these times of meaningful (and quite frankly arse-licking) dialogue with Great Britain but the fact Sky are not from this country does matter. The GAA for example, only allow inter-county kits to be supplied by companies within Ireland. There isn’t another sports organisation who could get away with a by-law like this but those at Croke Park do because the GAA’s ethos is supposed to be about Irishness. The previous Setanta deal attracted no opprobrium because, firstly, there were no exclusive live rights to championship games included and equally, Setanta are an Irish company.

The GAA is not strapped for cash, while not exactly recession proof they have proven themselves incredibly resilient to the economic woes of this island. Any worries they might have for the medium term are surely soothed by having multiple sold out Garth Brooks concerts in the Summer. They still (though none of the figures have been released) received a handsome package from RTÉ while Tv3 produced a statement admitting they made Headquarters a very attractive offer to retain their rights. There can be no doubt that the bringing of Sky into the market was about one thing, greed.

One is entitled to ask why shouldn’t they be greedy, all other sporting bodies behave in the same manner? You would be right but every other sporting organisation pays it’s main breadwinners, you know, the reason the GAA has become such a successful venture: the players. The money that floats around in soccer is, considering the poverty that exists in the world, absolutely disgusting. Although, the popularity of the game across the globe makes that consequence inevitable. At the very least we can say that the footballers with whom the whole gravy train is dependent on receive vast sums of remuneration for their work.

It is difficult to see how the GAA can present itself as the virtuous upholders of the amateur code while it’s hierarchy chase lucrative TV deals with pay-per-view channels and they organise five financially rewarding gigs in their most important ground right bang in the middle of the Championship. Equally, a whole other column could be written on the issue of under the table manager payments. While it can be argued that professionalism will dilute the GAA’s tradition further, it’s simply hard to justify managers, development coaches and the commercial wing of the GAA receiving recompense while its athletes do not. The sky deal clearly makes some form of payment for players a closer reality which surely isn’t the attention of the hierarchy who signed it.

The old argument that the money goes back into the clubs is certainly true but now we have reached such a stage that there is enough money to go around for everyone. A thought here for the poorer counties, perhaps, who try and compete with powerhouses like Dublin who can secure multimillion euro sponsorship deals of their own.  The clubs argument can also grate because the GAA so often treat their players at that level with such disdain. Although they make up 97% of the players playing Gaelic Games in Ireland club fixtures are continually moved around by the success or failure of the elite county team. Such supposedly easy things as planning holidays or organising work commitments for the senior club player has become impossible because of the whims of county boards.

The idea that Sky are still on the margins with so few games and that nothing sacred has been lost also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There isn’t a sport where once Sky have got a piece of the pie they have been happy with their portion. A few special events are cordoned off for terrestrial airwaves but Sky’s influence never abates. Another uncomfortable fact about Sky is that once events go off free-to-air television they lose significant viewing numbers. Worryingly for the GAA, research has shown that, in particular, people in rural areas are disproportionately affected by a move to satellite companies.

The hierarchy and their apologists have attempted to justify the deal because of what Sky can do with the ‘brand’ and the ‘product’. The showing of games in Britain will, supposedly, bring hundreds of thousands of new fans to the game. One of the great myths about Sky is that they have some sort of evangelist interest in the sports they show, this is utter nonsense. Their goal is to to corner the market for fans that are already there by pricing out their competitors.

The exception to this is soccer and particularly the Barclays Premier League. Sky must maintain (and grow) the ‘product’ of that league because a huge portion of their budget goes into football coverage, it is on which their whole business model rests, no other sport can remotely challenge this importance. Sky’s aggressive ‘branding’ of English football has destroyed the community aspects of English clubs near the top of the pyramid, having a desire to bring that into the GAA almost seems like some sort of bizarre death wish given what the body’s strengths are.

Gaelic football and Hurling will only ever be fillers on a Sky Sports schedule in terms of their UK audience. Did you know Sky Sports show angling, badminton, netball and speedway? (you’ve veered off to google speedway haven’t you?) Rugby League has been one of Sky’s flagship sports for nearly two decades, they have exclusive Super League rights and yet the code has made little or no impression on the Irish public. That’s because, by and large, Irish people don’t care about the Wigan Warriors or the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and by and large British people won’t care about Wicklow or Waterford.

Another mealy-mouth justification for getting Murdoch’s troops on board is that the Irish diaspora in Britain can finally watch the Championship. This would be fine if the GAA hadn’t also announced on Tuesday that they finally secured a worldwide streaming deal with RTÉ. This is a truly fantastic initiative which of course could have solved the problem those in Britain had in the first place. It’s noteworthy that their Australian deal with Channel 7 is on a free-to-air basis, they seemed to understand in that case that if you really want to reach a new audience you present your sport to the widest possible amount of viewers.

The GAA used to have principles. While they were clearly far from infallible it was always impossible to gain the moral high ground against them because unlike everyone else in sport, they weren’t beholden to the highest bidder. Thus, the Sky agreement is the final nail in the coffin for GAA exceptionalism. The days of the association as a charming anachromism appear to be coming to an end.

It is depressing as it is predictable.

Conor Hayes

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