There’s a familiar narrative among the GAA cognoscenti that the deal with Sky Sports is emblematic of the Association’s rush towards professionalism. It has continued unabated since the TV deal was drawn up back in 2014 and in recent weeks it has gathered further momentum.
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Poster boy for anti-Sky Sports thinking is former Derry footballer and RTÉ TV pundit, Joe Brolly. His column in the Sunday Independent last week in which he attacks, with relish, GAA link-ups with Sky Sports and AIB, seems to have gained quite a bit of traction.
Here’s a couple of key pieces from the article:
“Sky, with the support of the hierarchy, have already taken a third of the live games away from the vast majority of what Croke Park calls ‘consumers’. Sky knows it cannot and will not win over the current adult GAA generations. Last year, in Ireland, when 1.35 million viewers watched the football final on RTE, just over 2,000 watched it on Sky. Sky’s strategy is smart. Forget the adults, go after the youth.”
“So, Sky’s market share will continue to grow. The younger generation will see Sky as part and parcel of the GAA. Pay per view will be the norm. Sky will in time become the sole provider of live inter-county GAA. The cultural resistance will be broken by then and the highest bidder will win. The elite game will become something entirely separate, a process that is already at an advanced stage.”
The general tenet of Brolly’s argument is the GAA’s failure to stem the tide of elitism. And he wears it well, as do a host of other GAA columnists who have berated the trend towards professionalism over the last few weeks.
Traditional television model is eroding
If we are to look beyond the thicket of rhetoric surrounding the link-up with Sky Sports, we will see that an erosion of our great Association’s ideals is not the worst thing about the (now 8-year) TV deal.
There is another, more concerning issue at play here: it’s that by creating such deep, long-term links with Sky, the GAA is handcuffing itself to a media model that is dying out. It betrays within Croke Park, a complete failure to recognise the ever-changing digital landscape.
The public – especially younger generations – aren’t just getting their sports intake via TV anymore*. Therefore, if the GAA were to continue to use a traditional, linear – ostensibly television – approach to their media offerings they would be eliminating their most important demographic.
* There’s a myth that millennials (and I don’t want to overuse that term; but it is a very useful one) don’t watch TV at all. That is, of course, untrue. The distinction is that they consume television in a totally different manner to previous generations.
The trouble with Sky
The GAA needs to find ways to adapt and maybe they think Sky Sports hold the answers. Sky presents some much-needed, healthy competition to a stale RTÉ offering (Sky’s football analysis, and Peter Canavan in particular, is consistently excellent); they have a stable, slick mobile application (Sky Go) that allows viewers to watch games on phone, tablet and PC devices; and they are well-versed in the digital broadcasting and social media world.
But here’s the rub (that flies in the face of Joe Brolly’s contention that by going after the youth, Sky will eventually become the sole provider of live GAA inter-county matches)…
The demographic in question (18-35 year-olds) aren’t in the habit of forking out £50+ per month subscription fees just to watch a handful of TV channels**. And certainly not to watch a handful of GAA Championship games. Paying £8 for a Netflix subscription is more their thing.
** They’re savvy enough not to pay for Nickelodeon, Hallmark and the freaking Gospel Channel, just so they can watch two All-Ireland football quarter-finals.
Whatever about moral and ethical reasons, Sky’s outdated business model is the main reason why the GAA cannot afford to forge deep links with the UK broadcaster.
It’s not because the Sky Sports logo will be emblazoned across our sport, or because we’ve done a deal with the evil Rupert Murdoch, but because it will mean that a large percentage of the millennial generation will not have regular access to Gaelic Games coverage. And if they don’t watch it, they’ll struggle to ever be interested in it. And numbers playing football and hurling will decrease exponentially.
The problems are obvious. The GAA needs to re-think.
Problems in getting today’s teenagers and 20-somethings to watch sports are being experienced worldwide, but some sports leagues are adapting better than others.
Baseball in the United States, for example, is seeing a downturn. Less kids are playing and its audience seems to get older every year: over 50% of viewers are over 55 years old. Young people are no longer tuning in.
Conversely, the NBA is in rude health. 45% of its viewers are under the age of 35. In 2016 it became the first sports league to pass one billion social-media likes and followers across all team and player accounts. Game-night in the NBA isn’t just played out on ESPN and TNT, (TV networks) it has a huge conversation on Twitter and instant highlights clips across YouTube and Instagram.
The NBA’s social media strategy has revolutionised sports consumption, enabling it to attract a more diverse and youthful fanbase. It’s on course to overtake the NFL (the US variety) as America’s most popular sports league.
Social media platforms provide palatable alternative
The millennial generation enjoy consuming sports in bitesize chunks, and in the most convenient locations. The pre-eminent social media platforms fit the bill perfectly. For example, the NFL has joined up for recent deals with Twitter and Amazon to show live football games and highlights. Champions League soccer matches have been available to watch live on YouTube. (These tech upstarts aren’t just about instant messaging among teenagers and viral videos. They are disrupting the live television space.)
This is where the GAA needs to focus its attention: experiment with social media platforms to show off our games (it would be much more palatable to the GAA fraternity than Sky). Highlights packages, full-games, pithy videos, whatever.
What if the GAA were to roll out their own streaming service (something in the mould of GAAGO perhaps, which is currently aimed directly at viewers abroad)?
I’d happily wager that households and millennials up and down the country (even those in Balla, County Mayo), would pay £6.99 per month for a dedicated GAA streaming service. It would be available across all platforms and could broadcast an agreed number of live Championship games exclusively (not covered in the packages with RTE/BBC/TG4). Documentaries, classic games, bitesize news and highlights shows? It already sounds fantastic.
Either way, Croke Park needs to get moving on this. The end result should be the eschewing of Sky’s bloated subscription offering in favour of a leaner model that the younger generation can engage with. They are our most important natural resource, they need to be accommodated.
To put a Celtic spin on a famous Wayne Gretzky quote: run to where the sliothar is going, not where it has been.
Demand controls supply
There was a telling line from GAA commercial Director Peter McKenna at the beginning of 2017 when he defended an extension to the Sky Sports deal:
“What we have got is stability. We know that it is now locked and secure for five years. That allows us to plan and to get ourselves ready for the next tranche.”
Unfortunately for the hierarchy in Croke Park (the new Director General included), they won’t get to decide how the next tranche might look. They do not have control any longer. The age-old business concept of supply and demand has been flipped on its head. Demand now controls supply. Just ask the owners of broadcast news organisations (who can’t understand why no-one below the age of 70 watches news on television anymore), or newspaper publishers (who wonder where the advertisers have gone).
The viewers out there have shown us what they want and how they want it; and it will be ever-changing in that five year period. The Internet revolution has put consumers firmly in control.
Only if the GAA listen and act accordingly will they secure our Association’s rightful place for the generation to come.