The geoblocking of GAA content has rightly been criticised as an example of the irrationality of partition. As Somhairle Mag Uidhir argues, it also points to a deeper rot within the Association itself: the commodification of Gaelic games.
Some GAA fans in the north of Ireland were left reeling on Saturday afternoon when in the dying minutes their feed for the All-Ireland Football Semi-Final was abruptly switched off. It affected northern viewers who were using their Sky box to watch Tyrone-Kerry on RTÉ. At the most dramatic of moments, the match was geoblocked.
Geoblocking is the process by which broadcasters restrict who can watch a feed depending on their location.
The match had gone into extra time, crossing into the slot allocated for a European soccer highlights programme which RTÉ is only permitted to show in the Republic. This time slot was automatically geoblocked, with no one registering that the relevant programme wasn’t being broadcast.
Such region locking of GAA coverage has been happening on-and-off for the past few years. For example, despite an agreement with the GAA stating RTÉ must make coverage available to all 32 counties on the RTÉ Player, northern viewers miss out when their IP address is routed through the UK ‘mainland’, as streaming rights for that region are held by Sky, of course.
But Saturday was by far the most egregious example yet. Between Sky, the GAA, and RTÉ, it should have been foreseen and prevented from happening.
As many have rightly pointed out, geoblocking is yet another example of the irrational nature of partition. Less obvious, maybe, is that it’s also a symptom of deeper problems within the Association: pay-per-view deals and the general commodification of Gaelic games.
Partition and Commodification
The division of Ireland long predates geoblocking, of course. But without partition, such region locking wouldn’t impact northern viewers at all. While more moderate a consequence, perhaps, this is only the latest example of how partition has affected the GAA community.
Border crossing difficulties and the practical challenges of organising in different legal jurisdictions have existed for decades. The Northern GAA community have felt the sharp end of this more than most; over the years they’ve endured violent attacks, institutionalised sectarianism, and a certain amount of what gets dubbed a ‘partitionist’ attitude from some of the GAA fraternity south of the border.
The impact of partition on sports in Ireland isn’t rigid; it can manifest in different ways in differing situations. In soccer, for example, an international agreement allows people born in the north to choose which country they wish to represent, Northern Ireland or the Republic. Meanwhile, rugby has only the one, all-Ireland, team. In these cases, the effects of partition have been dampened slightly.
At the same time, other circumstances can intensify how partition is felt.
The GAA hierarchy, over the past twenty years, have committed wholeheartedly to turning Gaelic games into a commodity. It is a process which has brought more and more of the logic of capitalism into what should be a community sport. And under its shadow the nuances of Irish history are easily lost.
Multimillion-euro broadcast deals are central to this commodification effort, and ordinary GAA supporters are made to experience a double edged sword: increasingly glitzy production at the cost of higher access prices and region locks.
The Sports Broadcasting Battering Ram
Broadcasters rely on live sports for the biggest share of their ad revenue, as well as to attract more and more customers. As billionaire baron Rupert Murdoch admitted in the 90s, media companies “use sports as a battering-ram” to break into new markets.
And so, sports broadcast rights have skyrocketed over the past decade. In May, the Premier League renewed media deals worth £5bn. The NFL, the world’s ‘most valuable property on TV’, has just sold its rights for over $10bn a year. On a global scale, sports broadcast rights fetch close to $30bn annually.
And these costs are increasing at a time when traditional satellite TV services are feeling the pinch from tech alternatives like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
With the costs so high, and the role of live sports becoming ever more important to commercial success, those paying for broadcast rights need to keep tight control of their content in order to squeeze as much out of it as possible.
Since rights are sold by region, broadcasters take every conceivable measure to ensure that they are the only ones whose coverage reaches their particular ‘catchment area’. Geoblocking requirements are built into the deals themselves; unique requirements stemming from partition become but a blip.
This year’s Olympics provides a stark example. Tokyo broadcast agreements amounted to billions – a gargantuan figure given that the competition only ran for seventeen days. RTÉ had the rights to show live coverage in the Republic.
In the vast majority of cases, viewers in the north couldn’t watch it, regardless of whether they were accessing RTÉ through Sky, Virgin Media, or the RTÉ Player. This included friends and families of Irish athletes from the north who were competing in Japan. Even RTÉ social media snippets were blocked.
RTÉ’s response stated:
“The International Olympics Committee (IOC), who are the rights owners for Olympics Games coverage and make all decisions about how rights are allocated across the different territories, have included Northern Ireland as part of UK broadcast territory for Olympics coverage… As such, the rights holders for Northern Ireland are BBC and Discovery (on Eurosport). RTE has no control over IOC decisions in this regard.”
This is true. Ultimately this decision was made by one of the biggest gangsters in the world of sport: the IOC. This is where the blame lies, and more generally with the total commodification of competitive sports.
It is also true that RTÉ, the Olympic Federation of Ireland, and both governments on this island, should have been hassling the IOC about this situation from long before Tokyo was even chosen as a host city.
The GAA have entered into this gladiator arena of commodified sports, alongside the IOCs and the Premier Leagues of this world. And it comes with callous profit-driven rules which puts the Association’s values, such as mass community access, under huge strain.
It is only through making deals with telecoms giants like Sky that geoblocking has become a part of GAA broadcasting where it never was before.
The Pay-Per-View Price-Block
Geoblocking isn’t the only measure brought about by commodification which restricts GAA viewers: fans have also been price-blocked. What’s in your wallet decides whether you can watch.
The first pay-per-view (PPV) agreement the GAA made was with Setanta in 2004. If the dubious justification back then was that Setanta were a fledgling Irish company and that they only showed games that hadn’t been otherwise picked up for coverage, it certainly doesn’t hold true for Sky, a multinational behemoth.
Ever since they first came on board in 2014, an increasing number of the men’s senior intercounty championship games are behind a pay-wall. Sky attempts to lure new paying customers with the appeal of live sports, their ‘battering-ram’ in action.
The moral case against having a PPV model for Gaelic games is watertight: amateur sports — rooted in communities and kept running by mass participation at grassroots level — should not be a ‘product’ for capitalist corporations to exploit in their endless search for profit. Just as viewers in the north shouldn’t be geoblocked out of watching their county play, neither should viewers anywhere in Ireland be price-blocked from the same.
And there are other reasons pay-per-view should be avoided, too.
The Dangers of PPV
Broadcasting multinationals often overpay for sport, letting the operation run at a loss in order to make profits on other aspects of their business. This can create a dependency for the sport in question. RTÉ estimated the Sky deal to be worth €55m over five years. The scale of that investment, plus the fact that Sky’s involvement has driven up what RTÉ are paying, means it would be difficult for the GAA to fill the hole were Sky ever to pull out.
Not only that, but at a time when scheduling headaches are bedevilling the entire Association, PPV deals can influence the quantity, timing and structures of fixtures. The introduction of the Super 8’s, which tripled the number of matches at the quarter-final stage of the men’s football, was largely because the GAA needed to provide enough top-tier games to satisfy both RTÉ and Sky. Covid has put a pause on this for now, but in a battle between the demands of broadcasters paying millions, and the unpredictable needs of the grassroots, who is likely to win out?
Additionally, PPV agreements can erode aspects of the culture and heritage surrounding a sport. RTÉ’s coverage isn’t perfect but there is room on the state broadcaster to debate the big questions within the GAA itself. Expect no such critical eye from Sky about the commercial trajectory of the Association when they are a prime beneficiary. They won’t be examining the strain on the GAA’s amateurism or community ethos anytime soon.
And finally, entering into the world of PPV deals brings a pressure to depoliticise the sport. Think back to 2018 when officials at more than one senior championship game tried to remove Palestine flags from the crowd. It doesn’t matter that Sky may not have asked the GAA directly to tone down outward political expressions – it’s enough that intense commercialisation brings about a culture where politics is too risky because investors must be kept happy.
‘Expanding Our Games’
The touted motivation for the deal with Sky was to increase awareness and participation in our games. This was nothing more than a ruse.
PPV deals do not help promote games. Cricket has found that out the hard way and is attempting to return to terrestrial television as a result. The viewing figures for audiences outside Ireland are extremely low. Relying on Sky Sports to set aside their battering-ram and actually care about the development of an indigenous sport is akin to relying on the fox to care about the hen.
Even had the Sky deal been about the promotion of football and hurling to a non-Irish audience as claimed — and not the desire to boost media revenue — it is still a damning indictment of the hierarchy. The primary fuel for the growth of Gaelic games abroad is the enforced emigration of the island’s young people.
In this context, being gung-ho about the spread of GAA outside Ireland, while many of the communities here which form the bedrock of the organisation struggle so desperately, leaves a bad taste. Contrast this to the absence of any concentrated campaigning from the Association for the government to address rural depopulation and under-investment in these same years, and we see the real human cost of the GAA’s capitalist trajectory.
This is not to fall into a “look after our own first” style argument. Rather, it is to point out that the push to develop the GAA abroad stems from the fact that ‘abroad’ is a new market, a potential goldmine. On the upside, the ever-growing number of homesick Irish people dotted around the globe can be enticed to pay up for Croke Park PLC’s unnecessarily-costly streaming service, GAAGO.
The responsibility lies with the GAA Ard Chomhairle to make sure that supporters in Ireland and across the world can watch games as easily and as cheaply as possible. The current commitment to PPV agreements, as part of a wider commodification of Gaelic games, means they are failing in this obligation.
And it is likely to get worse. The present deals expire at the end of the year and Sky will not rest on their laurels, while interest from Jeff Bezos’s monolith, Amazon, spells further danger.
The smallprint of GAA media rights packages are a valuable corporate secret, kept hidden from the average member. But at roughly €14.5m a year, the current broadcast agreements make up somewhere between 20-25% of the Association’s annual revenue.1 And in a pandemic context, when ticket sales are way down, broadcast money has become doubly important.
The GAA likes to state that the majority of its revenue gets reinvested into the grassroots. But as Gearóid Ó Riada memorably quipped, this ‘trickle-down’ model is remarkably like the model of capitalist economics, in that much of the money doesn’t, in fact, trickle-down.
Most of the GAA’s intake gets spent on feeding the beast that is the men’s intercounty game. It is professionalised to such an extent that it costs millions to keep it running. This professionalisation grew out of the commodification which began in earnest in the 1990s.
However, the GAA is so far down this road now that it can’t simply opt out. Neither can it stand still; if you do that the world of commodified sports will leave you behind.
But that is a topic for another article. What is clear for now is that while commodification comes with shiny improvements — it brings performances to a standard that was hard to imagine even a decade ago, for supporters to enjoy — turning Gaelic games into a commodity also exacerbates existing inequalities, while creating a host of new ones.
The community gets geoblocked and price-blocked. Partition makes itself felt, Palestinian solidarity is frowned upon, and any politics challenging the status-quo is now bad for shareholders. And founding values — like amateurism, community, mass participation — are steadily eroded.
Fighting against this commodification is critical, lest we lose those aspects which make the wider Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, at its best, a uniquely special organisation.
In 2017, a motion tabled at Congress called for all GAA championship games on television to be free-to-air. The motion fell, with only 15% of delegates voting in favour. This lack of support shows how ingrained the commercial path is within the Association’s top brass.
Despite this, it is possible to change course. Members up and down Ireland are becoming increasingly frustrated with the effects of marketisation on our beloved games. And if the everyday hard graft of GAA volunteers is anything to go by, there is little that can’t be done when they turn their minds to it.
Kicking out Sky, Amazon, and any other pay-per-view vulture, would be an important start.
Somhairle has also written a longer piece on the commodification of the GAA, in the Irish Marxist Review.