I paid €10 to see Cork hurlers on TV... but it doesn’t sit right

If pay-for-TV of GAA matches excludes people from watching and celebrating these big matches, who knows what the consequences will be, says Kathriona Devereux
I paid €10 to see Cork hurlers on TV... but it doesn’t sit right

Dublin’s Alan Nolan saves from Robbie O’Flynn of Cork in the Al-Ireland quarter-final at the weekend. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

IT’S been eight years since I attended an All-Ireland final. The knuckle-chewing, heart-stopping hurling match between Cork and Clare, when Patrick Horgan’s point in extra time was surely the match clincher, until it wasn’t.

Clare equalised in the dying seconds of the match and 80,000 people staggered out of Croke Park unable to imagine putting themselves through it all again in three weeks’ time.

Clare were the ultimate victors in the replay, but anyone who watched that first fixture were also winners to witness such a momentous match and be part of the drama of the occasion.

It wasn’t just the people in the stadium leaping out of their seats, 1.3 million people watched RTÉ’s coverage of the drawn final, a 64% share of the available television audience.

For so many people, watching the final two teams of the championship battle it out is an important autumn appointment. I hope it stays that way.

Cork hasn’t been in an All-Ireland final since. The recent flurry of the Minor and Senior victories has lifted spirits and offered hope that Cork might win the Liam McCarthy cup before reaching the 20th anniversary of the last time a Cork captain lifted it.

A lot has happened in the GAA since Sean Óg Ó hAilpín reminded us in 2005 of how long a trip it is from Fiji to Cork and from Cork to Croke Park, but for me the most shocking is that in order to watch the quarter- final match between Cork and Dublin on TV at the weekend, I had to pay €10 to a British subscription television sports channel.

Sky Sports is showing 18 hurling and football championship matches, with exclusive rights for 12 of those matches. If you don’t have the specific Sky subscription and want to see one of those 12 matches, you have to cough up €10 for a ‘day pass’, navigate the online instructions to sign up (I’m pretty tech savvy and it took me a while to find out where to go), and then say a few Hail Marys that your internet connection won’t conk out in the middle of a passage of play culminating in a goal.

The reason I’m annoyed is because the GAA is about more than sport and specific matches. It’s about community, identity and history and intangible cultural heritage.

The GAA was founded in 1884 to revitalise Irish sports and was part of a wider movement aiming for the ‘de-Anglicisation’ of Ireland and an assertion of Ireland’s unique culture, language, pastimes, sport, etc.

It was an important part of the revolutionary years leading to independence from Great Britain in 1922.

Any Irish patriot watching from their grave would agree that the GAA is a roaring success and would marvel at the achievements of the last 137 years, but surely the idea that the quarter-final of the hurling championship between Cork and Dublin are only available to Sky Ireland subscribers would get them rolling their eyes at the very least.

Sky Ireland had 700,000 subscribers paying €595 million last year for pay TV, broadband and telephone. Many readers are probably Sky subscribers scoffing at me complaining over €10 when they pay considerably more every month in subscription fees.

But hurling and football are our national sports, our players are amateurs with day jobs in the bank, they were trained by dedicated volunteers from the time they were schoolchildren. I don’t think the same commercial rules as professional sports should apply.

The counter argument is that there are far too many championship matches for RTÉ to show on a given day and it’s not viable to send outside broadcast crews to the four corners of the island to cover everything, and that with a paid subscription TV channel involved in broadcasting matches, then more games get televised.

Does that argument hold up?

In 2012, RTÉ broadcast 31 championship matches live, in pre-Sky days the quarter finals of the senior hurling championship would definitely have been broadcast on RTÉ or TV3.

I’m obviously not so principled that I didn’t pay the €10. I really wanted to see the match, as did my six-year-old who has been fully indoctrinated into the way of the GAA with his recent deep immersion at a Cúl camp.

I’m sure lots of other Rebels forked out to see their team progress to the semi-finals. But I’m sure lots more didn’t, or couldn’t, for lack of internet or money.

Sky Ireland’s press release about their GAA championship coverage talks about viewers being in for a treat with their high quality coverage. I’d take less of the pitch-side punditry and post-match analysis on an oversized plasma screen wedged into a tiny corridor if I could watch the match on free to air RTÉ, TV3, TG4 or the RTÉ Player.

I’m worried that the normalisation of paying €10 to watch a Championship quarter-final match will creep. Will it become acceptable to pay to watch a semi final and perhaps, in time, the hallowed All-Ireland final?

The real beauty and importance of the GAA is not the big matches or the star players or even the All-Ireland titles, it is the grassroots clubs and communities. It is kids traipsing down cul de sacs or country lanes to pristine pitches to learn the skills and traditions of our ancestors.

The spectacle of the big days out at Semple Stadium or Croke Park sustain the grassroots system and vice versa. If pay-for-TV of GAA matches excludes people from watching and celebrating these big matches, who knows what the consequences will be.

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