Sporting shutdown shows why the GAA would benefit from its own channel

Sporting shutdown shows why the GAA would benefit from its own channel
A tussle between Cork players Kevin Hennessy, Tomás Mulcahy, Mark Foley and Tipperary's Michael Ryan and Conal Bonnar in 1991.

AT THE beginning of every week, eir Sport reveal their eir Sport Gold content being showcased over the following seven days, with the past week’s schedule covering boxing, soccer, tennis, rugby and GAA.

Two weeks ago, eir Sport aired the first two instalments of the four-part Dublin v Meath Leinster championship saga in 1991, with the remaining two games shown on Wednesday evening. Last night, the station showed the 1969 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Cork.

For many GAA fans denied access to a summer of live action, the eir Sport content has at least offered some form of a replacement. Substitutes are rarely the star attraction but, over the last four months, eir Sport has been playing a blinder.

When the last TV rights deal was being drawn up three years ago, eir Sport acquired the GAA’s archive rights in the last round of negotiations, up until 2022. It may have seemed insignificant at the time, especially when RTÉ and Sky Sports had plenty of live content to show. But when live GAA was canned, those old matches were suddenly a lot more precious than they appeared during the negotiations.

Despite having shown most of those games live over the decades, RTÉ has no access to the archive, which dates back beyond 2017, the year of its current live agreement.

RTÉ and eir Sport had come to an agreement over the live broadcast of some league games over the last two seasons. Eir has the rights to Saturday night league matches in the current five-year agreement but eir sublet some of those rights to allow RTÉ show some Saturday night live league matches. The same principle will apply when RTÉ will screen live county championship fixtures in the coming weeks and months.

TG4 will still reserve the first two picks of any weekend, but RTÉ will still have a decent range to choose from. Yet the current rights deal still underlines how restrained RTÉ are — when RTÉ showed some old classic matches in April, including the Cork-Waterford 2004 Munster final, that was part of an interim agreement with eir that no longer applies.

The national broadcaster has brought back The Sunday Game and, while the programme has been focussing on topical discussions around games and events, RTÉ are hamstrung with just three years of material to work with.

It’s even more frustrating again for RTÉ given that they have six decades of old footage sitting in their own archives. That frustration is compounded further with TG4 having also held on to its GAA archive rights, which are restricted, but which make up a crucial part of its programming.

TG4’s new series, All-Ireland Gold moved on to its second instalment last weekend. It’s another inventive project by TG4 but it is also constrained by the material at their disposal. In a short Reeling in the Years format, last Sunday’s programme focused on what happened in 1981.

It’s at least another meagre form of GAA rationing on terrestrial TV but, for now, the feast continues over on a subscription channel.

“They always had a value but the value of having images and recordings of old games have definitely come in to their own now,” said Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business on RTÉ News a few months back.

RTÉ meanwhile are continuing to try and facilitate Gaelic games throughout a dormant summer despite having limited archive material. Yet that is also a dilemma for the GAA because RTÉ is its primary broadcaster and one of the GAA’s few promotional tools during the current climate. As well as drawing the biggest audiences for football and hurling matches, that also applies to GAA programmes.

The GAA are fully aware of the current void on terrestrial channels but the Association is contractually bound to stand by the contract signed with eir, which is thought to be worth in the region of €200,000.

One way of filling that void is counties streaming their own club matches, especially with crowd restrictions, and many older supporters unable, or afraid, to attend matches in the coming months. Yet while streaming from individual counties has become extremely popular in recent years, it has its restrictions too in the current climate.

Many counties exploring the prospect of live-streaming some championship games in the coming weeks will have to abide by the GAA’s streaming policy, which does not allow live-streamed games to go in direct conflict with games being broadcast by the rights-holders, in this case TG4 and RTÉ.

That could mean financial penalties but the whole conundrum has reopened a wider debate about whether the GAA should have their own television channel. Some counties have already jumped on that train by producing their own content — Armagh TV, Mayo TV and Dubs TV.

The GAA do have GAAGO, a subscription-based service run by the GAA and RTÉ, which features live games, along with certain archival material. However, that is aimed at an international market, only accessible to the Irish diaspora.

“Obviously it [a GAA channel] would afford the opportunity of having matches archived and it could, in time, perhaps generate substantial revenue and offer a comprehensive overview of the Association’s activities at the touch of a button,” said the late Danny Murphy, former Ulster Council secretary, back in 2011.

“I believe that a GAA station catering exclusively for our games and activities would be more than welcomed now,” Almost a decade on, that need has never been greater for the GAA.

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