GAA Football

Kicking Out: Partitionist TV mess is of the GAA's own doing

The GAA's decision to split their broadcasting rights up into Island of Ireland and UK has created complications that have affected viewers in the north.

“The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes.”
GAA Official Guide, chapter one, rule 1.2


SO apparently it was Sky’s fault that The Sunday Game’s highlights show wasn’t available to viewers in the north on Sunday night.

Those, like me, who had missed the live games during the day and were settling into the recliner expecting to be met by Des Cahill, Tomás Ó Sé and the ridiculously likeable Tom Parsons were instead greeted by a blue screen with the error message: ‘This programme is not available’.

Of course this only happened in the north, where the programme had been geo-blocked (which is fancy speak for not available outside the Republic).

RTÉ pushed the blame on to Sky yesterday, saying that they made the programme available to viewers on the ‘island of Ireland’, but that those viewing it through Sky in the north were unable to see it, and that they’d asked Sky to investigate the issue.

It seems, then, that it will be a one-off and the highlights show should return to our screens this weekend.

But that doesn’t solve other issues for would-be viewers in the north.

In their response to an enquiry about the situation by my news colleague Bimpe Archer, RTÉ’s spokesperson said that The Sunday Game highlights are now available online through the RTÉ player.

Except for the vast majority of people here, they aren’t.

I went into their A-Z of programmes and The Sunday Game literally doesn’t even exist.

Short of paying €10 per game to GAAGO, there is no online facility for viewers in the north to watch back any GAA content that is free in the Republic, either the live programmes or the highlights shows.

Plenty of Sunday afternoons I’ve landed to Celtic Park for a 4pm game but because you’re in the north, you can’t watch the other TV game live online without paying for GAAGO. Yet if you drive five miles across the border into Killea, it’s available on the RTÉ player.

And that’s every weekend, not just when the broadcasters make a mess of it.

Sky might have made a mistake for one weekend but there’s a partitionist mess that exists that is of the GAA’s own doing, and one which breeds rancour among its own fraternity.

When the GAA sold their broadcasting rights, they broke them into island of Ireland, UK and the rest of the world.

But in the black-and-white world of broadcasting, the island of Ireland stops at the border.

As much as we may dislike it, our licence fee payment goes to the BBC rather than RTÉ, and our IP addresses say we’re in the UK rather than on the island of Ireland.

It’s a very unique and particular set of circumstances as we know, but that’s the thing – the GAA knows this and has done nothing to protect its members and supporters in the north.

They can’t do anything to solve the political and logistical difficulties this side of the border, but what they absolutely should not be doing is pretending that they don’t exist.

And the very, very last thing they should be at is completely ignoring their own people north of the border because it disrupts the pursuit of a better price for the broadcasting rights.

But that’s exactly what the GAA has done.

This is not the fault of RTÉ and it’s not the fault of Sky. They bought the rights that they were sold. There’d be no reason for RTÉ to buy UK rights, and the idea of Sky having rights to all the championship games across the whole country would never have been accepted.

Why, though, is it acceptable that they own the rights for the north?

It shouldn’t be, and yet despite our protestations, it’s something that is wilfully ignored south of the border. So much so that when the Sky deal came up for discussion again at Congress in 2016, 85 per cent of delegates voted to allow subscription broadcasters to show the games.

This is not an argument about whether they should be free-to-air or behind the paywall. This is an argument that Gaels in the north should not be treated any differently to those in the Republic.

There’s a good reason why ITV and Channel 4 weren’t interested in purchasing the rights when they were offered them by the GAA – the number of people in Britain who’d be watching the games would not have come close to justifying what they’d have had to pay.

They are both commercial entities but their revenue streams are very different from those of Sky, who would have recognised that showing GAA games = increased subscriptions in Ireland = more money.

And with their sporting portfolio having rapidly diminished in recent years, it seems unlikely that they’ll be looking to withdraw from the market when the rights are back up for sale ahead of the 2022 season.

The BBC was caught in a quandary where they were trying to cater for their viewers in Northern Ireland.

The GAA wouldn’t make any provision to allow them to show only the Ulster Championship, telling them they had to buy games from other provinces the same as everyone else.

They couldn’t justify that to their disinterested licence fee payers in Britain and so they had to settle for their existing arrangement that only allows them to show a game live as long as RTÉ are doing so.

The bottom line is that the GAA should never have been separating its rights in Ireland from its rights in the rest of the UK.

When they did that, they must have known the impact it would have in the north.

But they went on ahead and sold them anyway.

The GAA couldn’t have got the price they wanted without Sky coming in.

Sky wouldn’t have bought rights that weren’t exclusive.

And so the GAA decided that cutting out fans in the north was a price worth paying.

“Strengthening of the national identity in a 32-county Ireland” says the second rule in the organisation’s rulebook.

Actions speak louder than words.

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