Will be the revolution be televised?
I attended the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester in April and hope to bring you a series of pieces on some of the takeways for the Irish game from the week.
This article was originally published in blog:
Will be the revolution be televised?
Gianni Infantino, UEFA General Secretary, revealed at the conference that UEFA had agreed a deal with the European Broadcasting Union (“EBU”) for the televised rights for the Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualifiers. Interesting, but what is the relevance for Irish football fans?
RTÉ is one of over thirty national broadcasters which form part of the EBU and therefore this means that games will remain on free to air television in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The broadcaster was keen to publicise the fact, with an article appearing on their website that evening. The main quote, in the article and repeated elsewhere in the media coverage which followed came from Ryle Nugent, Head of Sport.
“RTÉ is proud to be able to secure coverage of our national side in these major international fixtures which guarantees that Irish fans will be able to follow their team’s journey to qualify for these key tournaments free-to-air.”
Televised rights of these games is a departure for UEFA as it marks the first cycle of “centralised TV rights”, such that the rights were bundled and sold by UEFA as a package, rather than each federation being free to negotiate their own rights independently. The general consensus was that the approach would be more lucrative, and whilst we have yet to see the breakdown on how the money will be distributed to each federation, the top line figure certainly looks impressive.
The proposed financial uplift from centralised TV rights was included as part of the recent RTÉ Primetime piece into FAI finances. Leaving aside the shortcomings of that piece, which deserve an article of its own, the programme noted that the FAI expect to receive a minimum of €40m for these rights. Once again this no firm basis for this, but John Delaney was widely quoted guaranteeing that the FAI would achieve this when the concept was passed back in 2009.
So we will all have guaranteed access to the qualifiers on free to air for the next two campaigns. All good news. We’ll also potentially have the option to watch other sides in action, as the “week of football” concept also kicks in, with games spread over several days.
All in all it seems good news for the association, but where now for the League of Ireland? The previous deal with RTÉ was signed in 2009 for the 2010-2014 period and thus expires at the end of this season. A key tenet of this deal with the increased provision of League of Ireland coverage in the form of live games and the Monday Night Soccer (“MNS”) which is now a staple in the viewing habits of the League of Ireland faithful.
Whilst far from perfect, most LOI fans see the programme as a significant improvement from the lack of coverage in previous years and the commitment to live games has seen one live game a week for the current season. It was the first time that domestic fans had access to a dedicated highlights programme in primetime with goals and action from every game shown. Whilst TV3 had previously dipped their toe in the market with “Eircom League Weekly”, the scheduling of the show and the fact that not all goals were shown mean that it was little more than a piecemeal provision.
In the previous deal the FAI “bundled” international rights with the domestic rights and this was the reason that the League was about to obtain the highlights programme and the commitment to live games. As the rights are now negotiated central, there is no opportunity to the FAI to leverage the international rights in order to secure a continued level of coverage. This is not an isolated issue for federations, and the English FA bundled FA Cup coverage with their TV rights for English internationals. Indeed the fears of the FA were such that they were very reticent to sign up to the centralised rights concept, until they received financial guarantees of over €100m per cycle. The FAI were keen to trumpet the increased coverage that they had secured for the domestic game under the last deal. In the changed landscape of TV rights, where does this leave the League of Ireland?
On an analytical level, one has to question the commercial proposition of televised League football for RTÉ. The provision of live games mean that they commit several hours of schedule to the game over the weekend. Crowds, on the most part, are disappointing and whilst one could argue all day on the quality or otherwise on the on field product, there is little doubt that empty stands do little to encourage neutrals or casual fans to watch. The viewing figures for the first season of MNS were believed to be a disappointment, with media reports of the time reporting that an average audiences were around 60,000. In comparison, in the same season, RTÉ were achieving 200,000+ viewing for regular Champions League group games.
In addition, at the EU Conference on Sustainable Finance in Sport, held in Dublin earlier in the year Ryle Nugent, Head of Sport, revealed that the Director General of the organisation had stated that they had to reduce the amounts paid for rights by 25% by 2016. In considering the commercial landscape and it looks a bleak view for domestic football fans. With a reduced budget, RTÉ will surely seek to secure the “crown jewels” in terms of football, GAA and rugby both in terms of club and national competitions.
In a football context, these are likely to be the international fixtures, Champions League and highlights of the Premier League. These are the commercial propositions which the broadcaster can use in order to drive in terms of commercial revenues, as these are the audiences are. The state broadcaster has seen commercial revenues fall by 35% in four years and thus one would assume that the strategy would be to focus of the key competitions and events in order to ensure the viability of the sports department.
One could argue where the value is being derived when John Giles freely admits that once again he doesn’t really know anything about the teams or Dunphy compares Messi to Shefflin. However those are the “water cooler” moments and those are the reason that people watch, and thus which sponsors are attracted to. We shall wait and see how the future unfolds, but as a League of Ireland fan I’ll be taking “each live game as it comes” to paraphrase the cliché, as we may not see the likes of it again.