Sky Sports deal a contentious move for GAA
THE BROADCASTING rights deal between the GAA and Sky Sports has rapidly come to be seen as a contest between commerce and culture. With the deal signed, sealed and delivered before naysayers get a chance to draw breath, round one has clearly gone to commerce. And the odds are that subsequent bouts will go the same way because, despite all the talk about bringing our national games to a wider audience, it seems clear that money matters in the GAA.
The deal was effectively hammered out behind closed doors, without the hindrance of discussions at GAA congress or its Central Committee about policy on TV rights. This denied the grassroots an opportunity to have a say in what amounts to a fundamental shift in direction by the association in which they invest so much of their time and energy. It was no surprise then that the decision got a very mixed reaction when it was announced last week.
GAA bosses have since been at pains to explain that the deal with Sky Sports is all about making football and hurling accessible to the greatest possible number of people, in the highest possible HD quality. According to the GAA, the decision to grant broadcast rights to Sky was not about money. But of course money is involved and, although the amount will only be made known when the GAA publishes its annual accounts next year, it would seem reasonable to expect that the figure will be substantial.
The deal with Sky Sports has thrown up a raft of issues that are central to the ethos of the GAA and its role as custodian of the national games.
One argument put forward by the GAA in defence of the deal is that it will give the Irish Diaspora greater access to matches on television. However, while the move has been broadly welcomed in the UK where Sky broadcasts, the Irish community in the US is more circumspect.
In New York where they already have to pay dearly to watch a football match, they see no benefit in the Sky deal and they don't all take kindly to the GAA playing the emigrant card. There is a key point here: If the GAA is so keen to foster and protect Irish culture in emigrant communities, then why not provide free television access to games?
Ultimately what it comes down to is commercialism and the Sky sports deal is the latest move, but not the only one, in this direction. Corporate boxes at Croke Park and advertising on team jerseys were also steps along the same path and these, in their turn, were also the subject of debate and controversy. The question the GAA needs to address is where the path of commercialism leads.
On the one hand there might be no reason why the GAA shouldn't operate entirely as a commercial organisation, with paid professional players. It would be no more than what is deserved for players whose status is amateur but whose commitment matches that of their counterparts in professional sports.
However, commercialisation puts a question over the relationship between the GAA and the spirit of volunteerism that is the engine driving the association's success. Whatever about the pros and cons of the current debate over the Sky Sports deal, if the bedrock of volunteerism finds itself out of sync with the GAA's commercial aspirations then the association could face some challenging times in the future.