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Ciarán Murphy: The market has spoken when it comes to broadcasting live GAA

The idea that GAA games should never, under any circumstances, be shown behind a paywall is an unreasonable stance

To look at news stands or listen to radio over the last few days is to be struck once again at the seemingly impregnable position of the GAA in Irish life. On Tuesday morning I went down to my local shop for a litre of milk, and it seemed every newspaper front page was festooned in headlines about this GAAGO farrago.

The idea that GAA games should never, under any circumstances, be shown behind a paywall is an obstinate one. Almost as obstinate is the idea that this is an irredeemable break with tradition dating back into antiquity.

The fact that the GAA only really started showing live games in the mid-90s is always conveniently overlooked. For 110 years of the 140 years that the GAA has been in operation live coverage of anything outside the All-Ireland football and hurling semi-finals and finals was painfully sparse. This is the reality.

Listening to some of the chat this week it has become clear that many people see no possible situation in which there is too much GAA on television. All games must be on free-to-air; TG4 should be involved; a dedicated GAA TV channel is the only possible outcome. Games, analysis, highlights, magazine shows – regardless of the impact that such ubiquity would have on the quality of that coverage.


And yet I have met some TV executives in my time. None of them struck me as people who would refuse to listen to viewers baying for a product that is proven to be financially spectacularly successful.

If we ask ourselves why The Saturday Game appears only sporadically on the schedule this summer on RTÉ 2, or why there’s no magazine show on in the middle of the week, it is fair to say it’s not because the GAA doesn’t want it. It’s because TV companies reckon they can’t turn a profit doing it. Forget about what’s in the broadcast deal signed last year – it would be enshrined in any deal if there was a will there to make it and the audience numbers there to ensure it would be profitable.

The Virgin Media statement on Tuesday was genuinely noteworthy because it suggested that it hadn’t been asked if it would be interested in stepping into the breach when Sky pulled out of negotiations late on last October.

Virgin might think the GAA should have picked up the phone once Sky was out of the equation. The GAA statement in reply on Wednesday evening fairly brutally laid out the reality as it saw it.

So you can look at it both ways – the GAA had invited tenders. One of those partners pulled out. Is it amateurish to then pick up the phone at the last minute and ask another previously-disinterested TV network if it had changed its mind? Or should it have been more dedicated to the idea of getting new people around the negotiating table instead of handing rights over to the streaming service co-owned by the only two organisations left in the room?

To me Virgin Media’s statement was at least as focused on bringing home the perceived inequity of the licence fee situation as it was about making a point regarding the GAA broadcast deal.

Even taking into account the sensitivities of TV rights for the Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire competitions, it would be an exceptional result for the GAA if Virgin thought that (for instance) showing live games and highlights shows from the Tailteann Cup and the Joe McDonagh Cup was good business. It would at least introduce them as players in the GAA market. But that simply doesn’t make business sense for them obviously.

Virgin is in competition with a State broadcaster in receipt of both the licence fee and advertising revenue. I can imagine it was far from amused to hear RTÉ's group head of sport, Declan McBennett, saying on The News At One on Tuesday that the money RTÉ gets from its co-ownership of GAAGO will go towards bidding for more live sports rights.

And if you’re a GAA lifer and GAAGO customer it might annoy you to discover that your hard-earned money is helping to keep the Cell C Sharks of the URC on free-to-air television. That may have been a strategic error on his part.

But Virgin (back when it was known as TV3) has shown the GAA championships. RTÉ has in the past carried midweek magazine shows that were very well received by the audience that watched them. These are organisations that have calculated the return on investment that they can expect from shows like that. And the fact is – Virgin has no interest in showing live GAA and it’s been almost a decade since RTÉ had a midweek GAA magazine show.

In both of those cases the GAA has not proven itself to be a compelling enough product to capture the attention of enough floating customers, at least as far as the broadcaster was concerned. If GAAGO is a tacit admission that a more reliable source of income than that floating customer is the hardcore GAA fan, the sort of person who would happily pay €79 a year for a dizzying amount of games, then we are brought kicking and screaming to four of the most annoying words in the English language – the market has spoken.