Croke Park. Photo: Flickr user William Murphy

The latest paper by Dr. Paul Rouse, UCD School of History, is an indictment of the GAA’s media deal with Sky, writes Michael Dwyer

With the GAA’s 2015 Congress soon to convene, a lecturer from the UCD School of History has enlivened the debate surrounding the Sky TV deal made on 1 April 2014 with the sporting association.

UCD’s Dr. Paul Rouse recently undertook a research study which serves to examine the impact of the Sky deal as a whole and questions the fundamental reasoning behind the GAA giving Sky exclusive rights to 14 matches.

The paper’s central conclusion rips to shreds the GAA hierarchy’s portrayal of Sky’s success and the online British reaction to games as “a vindication” of their decision. Rouse’s study highlights a string of facts: that viewing figures for showcasing GAA games in Ireland plummeted; that British emigrants already had a functioning service for viewing games and must now pay more; that the GAA has “no plan – in any real sense of that word – for internationalisation.”

Rouse’s research comes at a crucial time for GAA officials across the country as both Clare and Donegal have declared their intention to support a motion at Congress, which proposes to ensure that all GAA games are available free-to-view in Ireland once the current media deal lapses in 2017. The motion in question takes issue with the exclusivity aspect of the deal. Their argument is bolstered by Rouse’s study, which exposes the equivocal reasoning of the GAA’s top brass.

Rouse inspects GAA HQ claims that the deal was signed to provide coverage to Irish emigrants and to attract international awareness of Gaelic Games. Such claims are based on the premise that the GAA did not consent simply because of money. Last year’s GAA accounts suggest that the deal offers just €0.5 million per year in excess of previous deals, which supports Rouse’s argument that the money was “not transformative”.

After reviewing the claim that the deal was to benefit emigrants in particular, the Offaly historian takes issue with a number of matters. Paul Rouse disputes GAA Ard-Stiurthóir Páraic Duffy’s statement estimating that 11 million households in Britain would now be able to see live GAA games. Instead Rouse asserts that the population of Sky Sports’ subscribers is reckoned to be in the region of 4 million. Furthermore, British GAA followers could have subscribed before the deal to a Premier Sports package for around 100 games a year at the rate of £10 per month while Sky Sports subscribers pay at least £30 a month. Rouse argues that having stripped away “the rhetoric of serving emigrants what you are left with is the provision of a service that was already available but was now fragmented”. Australian station Channel 7’s initial deal to broadcast 45 games per year on a free-to-view basis proved unsuccessful and has been abandoned for 2015.

Accepting the romantic dream of spreading the GAA internationally, Rouse, an avid GAA fan himself, questions the ability of the deal to convert spectators into players. “A local guide on the challenges involved in spreading a sport can be found in the GAA’s continued attempts to spread hurling across Ireland”, the lecturer writes.

In an incisive fashion, Rouse analyses the debate surrounding the deal after it was made. While the GAA was quick to regard opposition as “cynical”, Rouse merely questions why the GAA would choose a broadcasting policy which is contrary to the association’s aims. “How can you profess the values that the GAA professes and at the same time sell exclusive rights to a broadcaster that is subscribed to by just one-in-six of the population of Ireland?” he asks. Using evidence from a previous study, the lecturer points to an inherent contradiction in GAA policy. A GAA task-force is currently geared towards solving alcohol abuse while, on the other hand, research suggests that pay-for-view TV deals double or even treble the proportion who go to licensed premises to watch games.

While the GAA’s early attitude towards TV rights seemed to tilt towards limiting the amount of games shown so as to keep gate receipts high, the 1990s marked a shift in attitude with more and more games being televised. However President Jack Boothman stated at Congress in 1997 that they would not “sell our people down the river for money” and that games would remain free-to-view for the people of Ireland – a stance which was reaffirmed by GAA presidents right up to Cork’s Christy Cooney, whose tenure ended in 2012.

The GAA’s claim that the media deal with Sky has worked “spectacularly” for the sporting body is dismissed by Rouse, who reckons that “the home viewership for matches shown on Sky Sports in Ireland were dramatically lower than similar matches shown on TV3 in 2013 and in comparison with similar matches on RTÉ in 2014.” The difference between viewership figures is dissected by Rouse also. “In the summer of a World Cup, the GAA chose to put its games in the darkest corner of the room and the result was clear. Take Saturday evening 17 June 2014, Dublin v Wexford averaged 18,000 on Sky; later that evening Uruguay v Costa Rica, averaged 358,900 on RTÉ.” Another damning statistic of Sky’s insipid opening year is revealed by Rouse as he states that “the average viewership on TV3 for GAA matches in 2013 was 288,900 over 11 matches – that is more than ten times higher than the Sky average for 2014.”

Rouse regards such figures as “utterly predictable” as they fall “completely in line with what happened in, say cricket and rugby league in England and rugby in Ireland.” While viewership figures are easy to differentiate, the GAA’s claim that “substantial numbers” of young British people are interested in taking up the sport with local GAA clubs is purely anecdotal as little evidence is available from the GAA.

Even though the deal is less than a year old, Rouse’s research strengthens the hand of the two counties who have publicly rendered their support to ensure that Sky can no longer hold exclusivity of rights for GAA games. Current GAA president Liam O’Neill, whose three-year term draws to a close at the end of this month, commented on the impending motions relating to the Sky deal in December and said that “the fact of the matter is, on balance, once the initial hysteria died down people recognised that the Sky component of our media rights deal has worked really spectacularly for the organisation. I think people have to accept that. Naturally, there will be the odd bit of reaction to it and the example has come from Clare. We’ll deal with that motion and let’s see where it goes.” All will be decided at Congress on Saturday 28 February in County Cavan.