ON RTÉ’son Tuesday night, co-presenter Sarah McInerney asked Eamonn Dunphy about the comments of Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president who, in attempting to justify plans for a new soccer ‘Super League’ had painted a dark portrait of football’s future.
Dunphy, as expected, had a right cut at Perez, but Dunphy lay most of the blame for the expansionist idealism at the door of the increased franchising of football clubs, especially through US investment.
For decades now, there has been huge commercial pressure from the new owners of football clubs, especially in England, to develop their income streams and to push into new markets. And most of those markets are defined and controlled by TV income.
Perez said football was in “freefall”, that TV viewing figures were dropping, and rights were declining. Perez claimed that 40 per cent of people between 16 and 24 were no longer interested in watching football.
“Football has to change and it has to adapt,” said Perez. “There are lots of games of little quality. Real Madrid v Manchester United is more attractive than Manchester [United] against a more modest team. The Champions League is only attractive from the quarter-finals onwards. Before that it’s modest teams that are not attractive.”
Earlier that day,had written how the BBC reported that sources close to the European Super League had used the term “legacy fans” to describe the 12 breakaway teams’ traditional support base. The sources added that the Super League was a pursuit for “fans of the future” who want superstar names.
The Super League was ultimately doomed when those supporters reacted so angrily to the move, but the creation of such an elite league, albeit one thought out much more cleverly, has probably only been pushed down the line a few years.
There will always be fanatical traditional support bases around clubs, however big or small. Yet, realistically, TV audiences still consistently want to see the best players and the best teams in action.
With the colossal sums of money involved, any kind of debate around the Super League and the Super 8s introduced by the GAA in 2018 are galaxies apart. However, there are still some similarities around the anger that move created within the GAA – especially from the lower tier counties – over the compression of the top teams to ensure more quality games.
The provincial round-robin format in hurling was easier to justify because there were a defined group of top teams at a similar level. But the massive success of that system, especially in 2018, was largely reflected through the huge desire of a wider audience to regularly watch the top teams playing against each other.
Every county wants to follow their own but, with similar formats in hurling and football in 2021 to last year, fewer games, especially fewer big games between the top counties, presents another huge challenge for the GAA now around TV viewing.
After a week of negotiations with their media partners, the GAA and those partners will reveal early next week the 2021 games programme and the accompanying television schedules.
With streaming services, this season’s broadcast schedules will be more extensive than ever, with more than 100 games available on broadcast. The stations will get less games than what was negotiated on their contracts, but that’s only because there will again be fewer big games for the stations to show. Every other match will be available on GAAGo.
With a winter championship in 2020, it made sense for less live TV slots, especially in the afternoon, when not all grounds had floodlit facilities. There are only five GAA TV sporting slots anyway over a weekend. But with the upcoming championships being played in summer, could another two TV slots – a 1pm start on Saturday and a noon throw-in on Sunday - have been fitted in to cater for a GAA audience craving live games?
Early starts are a regular occurrence for live professional soccer but it’s different with an amateur game, especially if players are travelling to venues. On the other hand, calculations by the GAA and their media partners will also be based around the law of diminishing returns.
The knockout element does increase the potential for drama but that still doesn’t necessarily generate marquee TV fixtures. Furthermore, showing more live games also runs the risk of creating championship fatigue.
Croke Park will also be concerned with satisfying their sponsors, especially when early football games will feel even more low-key with no crowds in attendance. Dublin’s dominance has also diluted the wider interest in the football championship. The hurling championship is vastly different, which is why the majority of games will be televised live.
The most-watched sporting event in Ireland last year was the Dublin-Mayo All-Ireland final.
The Limerick-Waterford All-Ireland hurling final also made the top 10 list of most-watched programmes, while the next most-watched GAA event on the list was the Galway-Limerick All-Ireland semi-final, which had a TV audience of almost 50,000 greater than the Dublin-Cavan All-Ireland football semi-final.
The GAA don’t have to worry about greed, fan neglect and warped ideals, which were the primary reasons for the failed Super League. But the GAA still accept the reality of TV viewers wanting to see the top teams playing each other as often as possible.