With pay-per-view GAA, are some emigrants more equal than others? – thoughts from Sean Kelly

Initially published on the Examiner website, the new deal with Sky Sports and the GAA is considered by Sean Kelly

 

The first mow of grass and the ball is thrown in ahead of another long summer. This year’s championship will be successful for some and a let-down for others, but one thing on many people’s minds is the new TV deal.

Will it lead to a new era for the GAA? Is it a step too far? What about our diaspora and the broader promotion of Gaelic games internationally? Also, with the debt on Croke Park finally paid off and the new tv revenues, is it time to look at bringing more of the big games to provincial venues?

I had reservations about the Sky deal from the moment I heard about it. The arguments for and against have been well vented at this stage. However, I’ve detected a lot of dissatisfaction with it. It is very unfair to elderly people who have played, attended and watched games all their lives and are not now able to attend games, as well as well as young families who can’t afford Sky subscriptions. Where there are rumblings of discontent now, imagine the reaction if a glamour quarter-final such as Kerry v Dublin was only available on Sky.

The principle of the deal should have been discussed at Congress and in future any similar radical change in the nature of broadcasting should be subject to approval from Congress. I fully understand Croke Park’s point when they state that commercially sensitive negotiations, by their nature, cannot be debated in public. But the principle of a pay wall is a big policy shift and a radical, unprecedented move which should have been subject to approval by the GAA’s highest decision-making body, ie, Congress.

As honorary president of Belgium GAA, details of the new online streaming service were eagerly awaited on the continent, as I’m sure they were among the diaspora the world over. The GAAGo service will offer 45 games live online, with a season pass costing €110 or €10 per game.

This is a slap in the face for our wild geese in Europe. I am not sure if gaels at home are aware of the costs and effort involved in playing our games abroad. Pitch hire in big cities, erecting and taking down goalposts, long journeys of up to 12 hours to play in monthly tournaments, where flight, accommodation and tournament costs are all met out of the pocket by the players themselves. There is no deeply-rooted community structure to provide fundraising so the costs of playing our games runs to the thousands of euro per annum. These people are our missionaries spreading the creed of Gaelic Games on the continent. The least they should get in return is free access to our games online.

As one long-serving dual player in Europe explained to me: “Wherever we go, we are asked by locals, whether Galicians or Bretons etc, where can they watch the big games live. It would be a massive game-changer to offer live streaming free to air online, not just for us, but also to give non-Irish Europeans, who are the future of the games on the Continent, the right to see the games free to air,” he explained.

Whereas the cost associated with the pilgrimage to the nearest Irish pub to watch the match will now be avoided, nevertheless the pay-per-view element is disappointing and a letdown to our emigrant community. Gaelic Games are now being shown free to air and live on Australian Channel 7, leading to a perception that some emigrants are more equal than others. What’s the alternative? RTÉ and the GAA should offer live streaming of matches RTÉ have the rights to free of charge abroad, as is currently the case on RTÉ Player in Ireland.

The benefits would be twofold. Firstly, it would be a gesture of solidarity and inclusiveness to our diaspora. They would be able to watch their games from the comfort of their homes from far flung places like Qatar to Cape Town to Ulan Bator where there is not always an Irish pub to show the games.

Secondly, it would be a powerful promotional tool for new audiences in places like Brittany and Galicia where our games are spreading like wildfire.

Whereas that question is partially answered by GAAGo now, it would be even better if they were able to access them free. The GAA would be taking a leaf out of the book of the English Premier League. It’s firmly behind a pay wall at home, but available free to air in places like China where marketing people recognise the power of offering the core product for free to drive revenues in shirt sales.

With the way the online advertising sector is developing, revenue streams could be easily generated to grow an increasing viewership and popularity of our games abroad.

Whereas the jury is still out on GAAGo, this will be debated on GAA pitches across Europe, North America and Asia in the coming months as our diaspora and the increasing number of people with no connection to Ireland gather to play Gaelic Games.

At home, with the unprecedented number of large concerts being hosted in Croke Park this summer, it is my hope the GAA will bring more of the big games to the provincial venues. This could be a policy decision in future, with matches such as All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals being given a ‘host venue’ early in the year so supporters could plan ahead.

Venues such as the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick or Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney have proven their attraction for big games in the past and could offer great atmosphere and excitement if they were slated early in the year to host a big game. It would also bring much-needed economic activity away from Dublin which is on the bright side of a two-speed economic recovery.

While we are talking about Dublin, maybe it is time to bring the Dubs out of their fortress on tour around the country a bit more. Attendances at their matches have slipped over the past number of years. I’m sure Wexford or Laois would fancy their chances of an ambush in Wexford or Portlaoise!

We are definitely entering a new era with the Sky deal and the developments online. The jury is still out, but the spectre of pay for play will rear its head again should Sky seek to increase coverage and investment in our games.

We need to be very careful of this development, as a new generation of players will grow up accustomed to seeing the same razzmatazz and presentation of our games they have become used to with the Premier League. As gaels, we have to hope the deal is a positive development, but it is reasonable to have fears that pay-per-view may open up a Pandora’s box.

– Sean Kelly was president of the GAA from 2003-2006, has been reelected as an MEP for Ireland South

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