Credit: Dirk Hudson /

Why GAAGO is every TD’s dream controversy

For the past few days, I was trying to put my finger on what it was, exactly, that bothers me about the GAAGO TV rights controversy. On the subject matter itself, like a lot of people, I have no particularly strong feelings: We live in a world where pay-per-view sport is normal. If you are one of the tens of thousands of people in Ireland who like Premiership Soccer, or Formula One, or European Cup Rugby, or American Football, or Boxing, then you are used to living in a world where you either pay to watch the games, or you don’t watch them at all. Away from sport, hundreds of thousands of us have Netflix subscriptions for entertainment, or spotify subs for music, or fork over money every month to pay for the Irish Times or the Independent or (if you’re really smart) Gript.

The idea that the GAA should always be free to air stems from three recurring mantras: First, that it is an amateur game and thus different from all those other professional sports. But if this were true, then it would be as immoral to charge admission to grounds as it is to charge a fee to watch the games on television: In both cases, you are watching the athletes play. Why should the person at home on their couch – more likely to be a casual fan – pay nothing for the privilege when the hardcore supporters are forking over for tickets?

Second, the idea that putting the games behind a paywall would “damage” the sport. If this were the case, then all the sports I list above would already have been mortally damaged by the growth of pay-per-view television. In fact (with the arguable exception of elite boxing) this has not been the case. In reality, pay per view TV has vastly expanded the number of paying customers for most sports, resulting in bumper revenues which can be – though aren’t always – reinvested in the games at grassroots level. The idea that pay TV is automatically bad for a sport just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The third mantra is probably the most offensive, and it is the idea that pay TV is particularly distressing for older fans. We are regularly invited to conjure up in our imaginations the picture of the poor pensioner with his old television sitting at home vainly searching through the channels for the Tipperary game, unable to work the internet and untrusting of the very notion of even having a credit card with which to pay to watch it. This is simultaneously patronising of GAA loving pensioners, and a flag of convenience for everyone else. As it is, many games are not televised at all, which most of those same pensioners accept without protest. Second, full highlights packages are provided on most free to air television, alongside live radio coverage. Third, though we like to play up the poor mouth in this country, the number of hardcore GAA fan pensioners who simply can’t afford to watch a game they really want to watch is infinitesimally small.

The controversies around the ownership and structure of GAAGO are more understandable: To the naked eye, it does seem rather convenient that the company has close links with RTE. Whether the bidding process was open and competitive is an important public question. That’s why the politicians are getting involved.

More to the point, it is the reason politicians are happy to get involved: They love nothing more than a public controversy that does not involve them, and in which they can “call” for things to happen without ever having to actually do things themselves.

It is no coincidence at all that this is a controversy into which Government backbenchers are eager to insert their names:

The same Government backbenchers do rather struggle to find their voices when there are other issues of public concern on which their own Government might be empowered to act: When there are “backbench concerns” about a Government policy, those are whispered quietly to friendly lobby journalists, or selectively leaked from parliamentary party meetings. In public, the TDs stay schtum and toe the line. Their ability to critique and criticise in public is reserved only for those issues and decisions for which a Minister in their own Government cannot be blamed.

This is at once understandable and entirely corrosive. Because we have, it turns out, a political system that’s able to hold people to account – just not the people it is designed to hold to account.  Our politicians are past masters at holding the GAA to account over ticket prices or television deals, and experts at holding the public to account for protesting in the wrong place or using the wrong words. They are wonders to behold when it comes to holding banks to account over mortgage lending, or holding supermarkets to account over price gouging. They absolutely adore issues of public concern that have basically nothing to do with their own areas of responsibility.

The public should not fall for it. But far too many of us do.


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