Thornley – Considerable danger in tinkering with TV coverage – Minister Ryan put in perspective


EAMON RYAN is no fool. In seeking to vastly expand the number of sports events to be screened free-to-air on terrestrial television, the Minister for Communications has done his research. He has also identified a problem regarding the exclusivity of television audiences on pay-per-view. Sport should never become too smug about this and sometimes governments need to keep an eye on them.

Minister Ryan is also on familiar terrain. He attended Gonzaga, played in UCD and his family, including an uncle who played for Munster, is steeped in the game. Thus, when he recently proposed that Ireland?s Six Nations games and Irish Heineken Cup games be ring-fenced on free-to-air television, it was all the more heartfelt.

Minister Ryan cites audience figures for Leinster quarter-finals which were on terrestrial television and then on pay-per-view, which drew audiences of 250,000 and 70,000 respectively. He points to the Munster-Biarritz final of

2006 which drew 500,000 viewers in Ireland, and the 2008 decider which attracted just 100,000, and countless examples from other sports.

He wants his son and a generation of young fans to be able to watch these matches without going to the pub or a clubhouse, not to mention pensioners and others, and these are all valid concerns ? although the spin-off to clubs and pubs shouldn?t be overlooked.

Besides which, those figures tend not to factor in pub audiences, and many young fans congregate to watch Heineken Cup (and Irish) games in a friend?s house.

Like rebuilt stadiums, the so-called Charlie McCreevy tax break shows how government can have a positive affect on sport. This bargaining tool helped the IRFU ensure a golden generation of players remained based with their provinces, and continues to do so.

The Minister will argue that the Government has ploughed plenty of money into the coffers of Irish sport, an annual ?4 million into rugby and the ?190 million which the Government and we the taxpayers contributed to the Aviva Stadium.

But sport pays such investment back. Various independent researches estimate that Heineken Cup games generate around ?10 million for the local economy, and international games six times that.

Also, it is the responsibility of the Government to re-invest taxpayers?

money into society ? including sport ? and let?s not even bring up that hoary chestnut about the Lotto millions.

As things stand, the IRFU take in about ?16 million in its share of television revenue from the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup, which is pooled between the six competing European unions or federations and shared out. The union estimates that were their Six Nations and Heineken Cup games listed as free-to-air, their vastly reduced bargaining position simply wouldn?t wash with their fellow Europeans, none of whom would have their hands tied to the same extent.

(As an aside, the Rugby World Cup, the Six Nations, the Lions and the ERC are all based in Dublin, but how long would that last with Ireland bringing markedly less television income to the table?)

The Minister understands the IRFU could lose something in the region of ?12 million annually in reduced television income, but he argues that they could make up the shortfall in increased sponsorship and marketing. The union claims that even experts in the field say the most they might recoup would be ?3 million, and that the main financial winners would be the terrestrial broadcasters.

Of course, if the Minister and the Government are so sure of their figures, why don?t they guarantee the anticipated ?12 million shortfall?

But it would also open up a legal hornets nest concerning the existing Six Nations and Heineken Cup television deals, not to mention how Ulster games would be categorised.

As things stand, the only Irish rugby matches listed as free-to-air are their World Cup games. And while the Minister may nurture a genuine fear that Ireland?s Six Nations games could one day be signed off to pay-per-view, they are currently on terrestrial television, while deferred highlights of Heineken Cup games are on terrestrial television.

Thus, the only net effect would be to ensure Munster and Leinster pool games and (if they?re fortunate enough) knock-out games, are screened live free-to-air.

Perhaps there is merit emulating the French in listing any Heineken Cup final involving an Irish side as free-to-Aar.

But, in all honesty, can Munster v Treviso or Leinster v Calvisano be deemed sporting events of national importance, up there with Irish World Cup games? That?s a great compliment to the Heineken Cup, but clearly this is nonsense.

Even if the IRFU, who employ over 300 people, suffered a shortfall of ?10 million instead of ?12 million, plenty would have to give, from both the professional and domestic games. Further trimming down player contracts alone could lead to a flight of Earls, with a marked decline in results for the provinces and reduced revenue streams, for nothing generates income quite like winning sides.

It is therefore entirely conceivable that the very thing the Minister and the Government think they might be protecting, they would, in fact, be helping to destroy. It would be particularly ironic if the Government were to help fund the Aviva Stadium and at the same time handicap Irish rugby to the point were it would be considerably less competitive in their new home.

The IRFU will today host a high-powered press briefing to outline their concerns, and they?re not exactly known for being a militant organisation.

But the fear in all of this is that the Minister has backed himself into a corner, and won?t want to be seen to back down, preferring instead to test the water in the EU.

Minister Ryan and the Government might also feel it?s a populist vote-winner as well, but they should tread particularly carefully here.

While it may be true to say the most important day in politics is today, this is not the same as a budgetary measure which can be rectified a year later or next time out. If the Minister is wrong and the IRFU are right ? and the IRFU are the experts in this field ? then it could take a generation to fix.

If it ain?t broke, why fix it? In such a scenario, does the Minister and the Government want to be known for bringing down the House of Irish rugby?

Destroying Irish rugby would be a hell of a legacy.