Sky Sports deal a con­tentious move for GAA

Bray People - - COMMENT -

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.

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