GAA Football

Kicking Out: Beware the paywall putting iconic moments out of plain sight

At one stage, just 3.3million British viewers were watching the all-English Champions League final on Saturday night - compared to almost 19million when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in 1999, a game shown live on terrestrial TV. Picture: PA

SATURDAY mornings in our house were always the same.

Rather than take the opportunity for a well-earned lie-in like most pre-adolescents, the first thought as soon as my eyes opened was to get up and snatch the TV remote.

There was one TV and whoever got there first earned control of the morning’s viewing, and with it rights to wave your hand in the brothers’ faces and sing “just-a-little-bit-ragged” at them.

I was far from addicted to the box, but I have had a long-term addiction to sport that was developed at a very early age.

Even though two of the four brothers were into their football too, their limits were more moderate.

That meant that with no support for my love of Football Italia, I had to be first out of the cart every Saturday if the TV was to be tuned to James Richardson instead of looking at Ant and Dec’s mugs on SM:TV Live.

Sunday afternoons were little different. We didn’t have The RTÉ in my younger days (I remember the wonder of discovering Dustin The Turkey for the first time in the very late ‘90s) so instead of The Sunday Game, I was largely reared on a staple diet of Chievo, Sampdoria and that memorable Parma team.

Like so many of my generation, the interest in Italian football died when they took it off terrestrial TV.

But the soccer bug had bitten and, growing into an avid Man Utd fan, Wednesday nights became the highlight of the week.

Perched in the corner seat from 7pm on the dot, I was so scared of missing a second of the coverage that I sat through countless episodes of Emmerdale.

When the live game was over, you only had to sit through the news until the highlights came on the other side. Days when it got too much, the TV guide was hunted down and the old VCR recording code put in - the one that caused so many disappointed Thursday evenings after school when the discovery was made that it hadn’t worked.

The only GAA we’d have seen in my first decade was on the odd occasion BBC were showing a game. Mostly, it was the wireless, and that was usually only when Derry were playing.

Hence the fact that my sporting priorities were upside down. Gaelic football was well behind soccer. It was only when The RTÉ aerial went up that things began to change.

It’s a very simple logic. My interest was like any child’s, based on the world around them, the one they can see. There’s little or no knowledge of, or interest in, anything else.

I always think back to the 1999 Champions League final, when I rolled off the sofa in delight and tried to explain to the mother the significance of it all. “The treble, Ma!”

At its peak in the final ten minutes, 18.8 million people tuned in to hear Clive Tyldesley proclaim Sheringham and Solskjaer as the new kings of Europe.

On Saturday evening, as a near-31-year-old, I watched this year’s decider in a bar in Albuferia, surrounded by Liverpool fans and a heartening number of ABLs, which have made a welcome return since the demand for ABUs began to dwindle.

BT Sport took the game off their paywall and yet, at its very peak, a Champions League final between two English clubs attracted just 6.2million viewers. The low point was 3.3million.

That was roughly three times more than would have been expected had the game been behind their paywall, as the rest of a breathless Champions League campaign was.

Think of the number of nine-year-olds that didn’t get to see all that drama, from Rashford’s penalty in Paris through Aguero’s disallowed goal, Liverpool’s comeback and Moura’s winner. It was the best European campaign of all time for drama.

And yet how many of the most impressionable youngsters were passed over because their parents couldn’t afford the subscription fees? Judging by BT’s customer numbers (1.8 million at the tail end of 2018), a whole lot.

Sport in general is at a crisis point in this regard. Leinster’s recent European Cup success was played behind the paywall.

Same as the Irish rugby team’s historic first ever win over New Zealand, which could in time come to be forgotten in favour of the first home, which was shown on RTÉ.

Right now, the Cricket World Cup is happening in England. And yet you’d hardly know it.

Since the British government removed test cricket from its protected list of broadcast events in 1998, viewing figures have fallen through the floor.

As of the weekend, tickets for just 12 of the 50 games at the tournament had sold out, despite the capacity of some of the host venues being fewer than 10,000.

The common theme of it all is short-term commercialism. A subscription TV company comes in with a big bag of cash that nobody else can match and the idea of any long-term consequences is drowned by the sweet sound of the bills being counted.

The GAA, having dipped their toes in the water with its current broadcasting deal, is no different.

There are still a good number of games live on RTÉ, but even since the deal was signed, the sporting landscape on which it was drawn up has changed almost beyond recognition.

The format of the primary football and hurling championships have been altered and now have more games.

Add in the feeling that the lower-tier hurling competitions have had basically no airing, and a picture of inaccessibility begins to emerge.

You only need to look at this year’s Ulster Championship. Overlooked, understandably, in favour of Munster hurling, it has shimmered so far.

Yet the only live games have been on Sky or BBC NI, both of which have a fraction of the reach RTÉ has.

The GAA took a fairly significant step forward on Saturday when it broadcast Offaly v Antrim live through its own website.

The organisation has made moves down this line in recent years and were they to continue down it with the free-to-air model that was trialled at the weekend, there is scope for huge growth in terms of viewership.

It’s hard to believe they will. These things cost money, and the business model is such that they’ll feel any outgoing must be countered by an income.

Avenues of sponsorship tend to come second, and so it’s hard to imagine that whichever way the GAA goes about increasing its coverage of the games, the number games behind a paywall won’t go up as well.

There may be a viability to that from a business point of view, but the GAA must hold itself to a different standard on the subject.

The money will be appealing at the time, but young people are already less and less engaged with live sport on TV. The more we put out of their reach, the harder it will be to retain their attentions in adult life.

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