IT WAS THE late 1990s. Friday morning, 7am. The office phone rang. Tom McGurk was on the blower. He seemed agitated, uneasy. It was, he intoned, a defining moment for the entire island.
Dark thoughts began to course through my mind. What could he mean? Had the Taoiseach of the day arisen in the night, like Nikita Khrushchev, and given Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan back to the Brits?
No, it was worse than that. The country’s most authoritative sports broadcaster (and columnist) told me that entire future of Rugby Union was at stake.
Just as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer had blown away a century of glorious amateurism in the mid-’90s, starting with Australia and using the threat of Rugby League as a battering ram, the same money now threatened free-to-air television’s coverage of the sport.
Tom was enraged, and for the very best of reasons. Not many people had pay-TV at the time, especially the sports channels. The people’s game was being sold to the man they called the Dirty Digger. The old, the poor, the schoolboys who trained every weekday, the ladies who made the doorstep sandwiches to be eaten after mucky club games would be shut out from watching the best rugby fixtures.
I agreed 100% with Thomas. This was outrageous. What right had the governing International Rugby Board and its European counterpart got to sell the rights? And what effect would it have on this great game and the way it was played? Would the players be forced to wear pink and yellow togs like cricketers down under? Would the game be played for stretches of ten minutes to facilitate greater advertising?
At the Sunday Business Post we, along with other papers, published numerous articles warning of the grave dangers posed by Sky TV, all to no avail. The train of history crushed those who lay in its path. Sky Sports became the go-to channel for those wanting to see many of the big games.
Sky’s alliance with Heineken to create the Heineken Cup was the first big victory for the money moguls. Then the English Rugby Union more or less rolled over. More big deals followed. The autumn internationals, the Lions’ tours all went to Sky-a huge organisation that can now afford to buy the Premier League and La Liga in Spain.
Was our opposition to the onward march of pay-TV wrongheaded? After all, the coverage of the Heineken Cup by Sky is superb. The matches of the British and Irish Lions get top class coverage too. There’s nothing wrong with Sky Sports, provided you can afford to pay for it as a householder or as the owner of a small bar or entertainment venue. The sky, if you’ll pardon the expression, has not fallen.
We were right and wrong
In retrospect, I feel that we were right and wrong. Big TV money has allowed Irish rugby to create massive new brands. For decades the GAA, which has vast roots in the community, tried to market the brands of Leinster, Ulster, Connacht and Munster through the Railway Cup. The results were pathetic. Frozen stadia, 90% empty in early March, attested to a complete flop.
Last weekend 53,000 people paid good money to watch Leinster defeat Munster in a Rabo-12 match at the Aviva stadium, which is part financed by the TV cash. Like the RDS on Friday night it’s a nice place to bring the family and you don’t need galoshes and waterproof gaiters to go to the toilet at half-time.
But a price has been paid and will be paid. The corporate cash is enough to finance three and a half big provincial rugby teams in Ireland: big wages for huge squads, massive back-up teams of specialist coaches and medics, mega-branding. The public loves it, the schoolboys and girls are still training like demons and McGurk and Pope and now Ronan O’Gara are still delivering top class analysis of the games that RTE cover.
The second, damaged, tier of rugby
But below the top layer, damage has been shipped. Proud clubs that used to field eight teams at weekends (first, second, 3As, 3Bs and so on) are hard pressed to field two proper squads. They are financially strapped, unable to pay even the wages of professional coaches, many of them from the Antipodes and South Africa. The social dimension of what was club rugby has been shattered. The after-match dinners where current players and alickadoos and female admirers swapped stories about legendary fouls and scores are less frequent.
The boys of Clongowes Wood and Ard Scoil Ris know that unless they make it into the big time at Leinster or Munster there won’t be much space to become a local hero down at the small rugby club.
And there is a further problem. TV coverage, with its obsession with camera angles and refereeing correctness is – together with the introduction of muscle-bound centres like Mathieu Bastareaud and Manu Tuilagi – badly affecting the game. Physical force is now preferred by coaches above all else (would a young O’Driscoll get a start in 2014?).
The game is being slowed down by pernickety refereeing, an addiction by players to small yardage-gains and the constant reliance on the advice of the fourth official and his TV cameras. One recent Heineken game took 112 minutes to complete. Are we watching rugby union or a variant of rugby league and America football?
What can the GAA learn from rugby?
Will the Sky TV cash damage the GAA? Well despite grim warnings from respected figures like Joe Brolly, I doubt it will. The GAA is strong enough to stand up to the likes of Sky and BT Sport or whoever they deal with. Gaelic football and hurling are not professional games. Expenses are paid at some levels of the game but there is no danger of a two-tier sport developing right now.
The notion that selling the TV rights to 14 games would allow Murdoch’s Sky a role in decisions about the nature of the game at the annual Congress is far-fetched.
The best argument I have heard so far about the Sky deal is that the GAA don’t need the money. The cantilevered stadium in Croke Park, one of the best in Europe, is debt-free. The organisation is awash with cash. If RTE and Sky weren’t there to pay €30m for 45 matches, there would be a queue of others waiting to write the cheque.
But this itself is the reason the GAA should accept money from pay-TV. Because it does not have to pay a legion of talented sports stars it can ensure that the pay-TV cash is visibly pumped back into the lower reaches of the organisation.
Brolly says correctly that the “GAA is about nothing if it is not about an ideal… it is as simple as that”.
Yes, it is about the money
He adds that this “is about principle, about the lure of the pound”. Yes, it is about money.
He’s right when he calls on ‘the hierarchy’ to stand by the thousands of children out training on Saturdays, by the parents who supervise and by the coaches who give their time.
But provided the ‘hierarchy’ spends the money visibly on such purposes there is no reason to despair. It’s basically a question of keeping the volunteer ethos and being transparent in everything you do.
The cash-rich GAA could, for example, use its resources to organise locations at which those without pay-TV could assemble to watch games, thereby deepening their roots in the community.
Last week, the GAA did not fight its corner well in PR terms. The notion that the Sky deal was done to service the diaspora seems bizarre.
Surely in an era of satellites, internet streaming, Skype, high definition TV and smartphones, the men and women of Lamh Dearg GFC in western China won’t be for long reliant on Rupert Murdoch to get access to top games? Today’s emigrants are not rocking back and forth in threadbare coats in shebeens in Boston and Beijing wishing they could be magically transported to the Premier Deck in the Cusack.
The GAA must face the truth. This is about money. The GAA needs all the money it can get. And it should give active consideration to building a new stadium in Belfast. One big enough to hold everybody who wants to attend knockout battles between Tyrone and Armagh and even Heineken deciders between Ulster and Toulon.
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