What does scripted sports entertainment have to do with Gaelic Games aside from the obvious cynical digs? Oh nothing, just the road map for the future of broadcasting. Emmet Ryan explains.
The debate over the GAA’s deal with Sky didn’t take long to move on to the obvious question of what happens when the next deal comes up in 2017? Those opposed, or at least concerned, by Sky acquiring rights are asking what extra rights will go behind a paywall in three years’ time? This is the most pertinent and irrelevant question in the debate. The real issue at hand is where they will go.
There are three groups of players in the GAA rights war. The terrestrial broadcasters, like RTE and TV3, pay TV providers, like Sky and Setanta, and the rights holders themselves, in this case the GAA. As has been made abundantly clear the only two games protected for free to air broadcasters are the All-Ireland football and hurling finals. Sky could, if the GAA were willing, buy the rights to everything but those two games. There is a third option, rights retention.
Earlier this year the professional wrestling promotion WWE launched its own digital network, realising that a core subscriber base paying it directly could yield far more income than dealing with intermediaries. The company set a target of 1 million subscriptions by year end. It has already surpassed the 700,000 mark. While men in tights jostling to pre-arranged results may not seem like an immediately relevant business model, the US firm has taken a logical leap from formats established by professional sports leagues in North America. The NBA, NFL, NHL, and, most successfully, Major League Baseball all have digital offerings which are based heavily around partnerships with local broadcasters. All four leagues have owners willing to leave traditional intermediaries, aka TV channels, behind to sell directly to fans. Getting to that point requires bold moves, step forward the men in tights to lay a marker down.
Fundamentally this is about broadband and money, many things are about money but rights retention is a non-runner without good broadband. The infrastructure still isn’t there for a reliable live streaming service that won’t get fans and viewers complaining about buffering, eternal buffering. The WWE found this out with its broadcast of Wrestlemania and regular viewers of the services offered by LiveBasketball.TV, the main provider of Euroleague basketball, are well aware of the regular issues with their streams. If the infrastructure were there, this deal would have looked different. The difference between today and three years ago however is substantial. The difference between today and the broadband of three years from now even more so. By 2017 the possibility of selling games directly to fans without a middle man will be there. By 2020, the time of the subsequent deal, it will be hard to see the GAA not consider it a top priority.