Christy O'Connor on GAA: County boards see streaming games as a crucial way to generate revenue

In the split-season format, the business end of the club championships have never been more appealing
Christy O'Connor on GAA: County boards see streaming games as a crucial way to generate revenue

Dónal Burke of Na Fianna shoots under pressure from Kilmacud Crokes' Mark Howard, originally from Passage, and Mark Grogan, during the Go Ahead Dublin final at Parnell Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WHEN matches are screened in Parnell Park in Dublin, it’s hard to tell the size of the attendance because of the positioning of the television cameras on the roof of the ‘Shed’.

Because so many supporters watch the match from that terraced stand, the ‘Shed’ is often hopping with a different current of electricity than the seated stand across the way.

Context creates atmosphere. A high-class game doesn’t need a big crowd to define its quality, but when RTÉ screened the recent Dublin football semi-finals, Marty Morrissey, Ciaran Whelan, and Noëlle Healy were standing pitchside just down from a near-empty ‘Shed’. In view of the cameras, the main stand was only sparsely populated, especially for the St Jude’s/Lucan Sarsfields semi-final.

The Dublin senior club football championship has always been an anomaly, considering the small crowds that attend those matches, especially in comparison to the huge following of the Dublin footballers.

Much of Dublin’s club exposure is promoted through social media and their own television channel. But outside of the county final each year, the crowds for the senior club championships are at odds with the huge talent regularly on show.

Dublin are unique, because most other counties attract significant attendances for the business end of their championships. RTÉ and TG4 have shown some brilliant matches in recent weeks, but, despite many of those games offering prime-time couch-viewing for the fanatics, especially over the winter, most of those games struggle to capture the imagination of the wider sporting public.

That is a perennial debate around televised club fixtures, but that whole concept is still surely exercising minds in the finance department in Croke Park, especially with the split season kicking off in earnest next year. There has been anxiety around the GAA at giving up so much valuable promotional time in August and September, but that trepidation will increase when the All-Ireland finals move back to July next season. And in that hiatus, can club games fill the void?

CRUCIAL

The early part of the season will provide wall-to-wall exposure, especially with the round-robin provincial hurling championships starting in April. The pace will incrementally increase to a July crescendo, before suddenly switching to early-round club matches in August.

That has been a hard sell, because even the local public have never fully embraced the early club championship rounds. 

The April club month never worked — especially in trying to market and promote games on television — because championship action at that time was disconnected from the serious stuff, which was still at least five months away in most counties.

In any year, the quality of live club games shown on television at the early stages of the championship has invariably been an irrelevance to the wider viewing audience, because they don’t watch them.

When the All-Ireland finals were moved forward in 2018, showing meaningful live club games on television was one of the GAA’s intended means of filling the vacant September calendar. But it was all the harder again for the games to register on such a packed television calendar.

The Premiership juggernaut now kicks off in early August and has usually picked up speed for the casual GAA viewer by September. The more fervent GAA supporter will always want more, but, even by that stage, that cohort still haven’t made that mental adjustment from the hype and intensity of the inter-county game to the more mundane club stuff. Even county finals don’t occupy that space in the minds of the general television viewer.

Giving more space and respect to club players is a necessity, but it’s still a delicate balance between presence and relevance in such a saturated sporting market.

It is much easier to market marquee inter-county games than club matches, but that challenge will now be all the greater in the context of how live streaming has become such a money-spinner for county boards.

Last Sunday, Tyrone GAA turned away live free-to-air coverage of their senior football final on TG4 in favour of their own live-streaming service, which they charged viewers €16 to access.

Peter Harte of Errigal Ciaran is tackled by Jason Carberry of Coalisland during the Tyrone, a game the county board turned down the chance to have on TV. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Peter Harte of Errigal Ciaran is tackled by Jason Carberry of Coalisland during the Tyrone, a game the county board turned down the chance to have on TV. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

TG4 had sought to cover the Coalisland-Dromore fixture, but they were turned down. It wasn’t Tyrone’s first time to do so; although the county previously accepted RTÉ’s request to show Dromore’s semi-final win over Trillick, they declined to put Coalisland’s win over Errigal Ciaran alongside that game to meet RTÉ’s request for a double-header. That move won’t have gone down well with Croke Park, because their agreement with TG4 is supposed to entitle them to show Sunday club games of their choosing. RTÉ’s deal only allows them to show Saturday evening and night games.

Tyrone were criticised over the price of their streaming services, but the hike further underlines how county boards are struggling for money. It’s easier again for the county board to justify the decision because streaming their matches generates far more income than allowing broadcasters in to show games.

The Tyrone club championship is one of the most competitive in the country; nine clubs have won the title in the last 10 years; it’s 16 years since the defending champions retained the title.

Watching a Tyrone quarter- or semi-final next August or September would be much more attractive than taking in a low-key inter-county football qualifier or provincial fixture.

The club championship will always have some brilliant marquee games, but using them to fill that new inter-county vacuum in late summer and early autumn may not be as straightforward as the public and the GAA hope it will be.

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