Last month Shamrock Rovers made a request to RTE to stop covering live broadcasts of their matches in a dispute over the lack of compensation paid to clubs featured in televised games. Despite this request the RTE cameras will be present in Tallaght tonight when Rovers meet Dundalk. Last month I sat down with RTE Head of Sport Ryle Nugent to put my questions regarding RTE’s coverage of the League of Ireland directly to him.
In researching this article I first contacted the FAI. They fobbed me off with the same prepared statement they gave everyone else about how “live televised League matches make the League attractive to sponsors such as SSE Airtricity and EA Sports. The TV coverage is also helpful to clubs when they are negotiating their own sponsorship deals and selling pitch side advertising.”
I contacted UEFA who said it is a contractual matter between the clubs and the TV channel and therefore they couldn’t comment on it. They went on to say that UEFA is also not involved in the selling of TV rights of national leagues to broadcasters.
Last year RTE announced they would show 78 LOI matches live over four years. This breaks down to roughly 20 games a year. So far you’ve broadcast 8, a long way off what was promised. Why? The contract started in August 2013 and finishes in December 2018 so basically it covers five seasons and we’re committed to 17 signals a year and we will hit our 17 signals this year. I think we’ve done nine and we have eight to come, those signals include cup semi finals and final. In fairness to the FAI, and credit to them because it’s not something you can do with all contracts, we try to work with the league where we can. if they’re are really good cup matches we might do an additional cup match and drop a league match. For example this year they agreed with us and Dundalk to agree the home leg of their Champions League Qualifier with BATE, so there is a bit of flexibility but in terms of our commitment to 17 matches and we will deliver 17 matches this year, like we did last year and like we will for the next three years of the contract.
From RTE’s point of view are you guys happy with viewing figures for the games? People can get fixated with ratings but rating aren’t the be all and end all, they’re not the only criteria by which we judge our out put. We do have a commercial imperative in RTE which is clearly driven by ratings, ratings count but we also have a public service commitment where ratings are less of a concern. If you were measuring the league coverage on ratings alone then you wouldn’t broadcast as many as we are doing but we’re not measuring just on ratings alone, we’re measuring it on the principals we now have in RTE Sport and have been forced to readjust and look at what we do and how we do it in terms of our strategy and that strategy is built around national teams, national games and major events but people when they think “national games” they automatically think of the GAA, and rightly so, it is our national game but there is a very strong argument in my head to try and synopsise that “national games” also covers the national soccer league, to a lesser extent the national rugby league, and to a greater extent horse racing. These are also “national games” so we have a responsibility to these games, international teams and major sports events and that’s where the strategy is. Covering the SSE Airtricity League and the FAI Cup definitely falls within that strategy. Yes commercial is important, yes ratings are important in the totality but it’s not the be all and end all, but it is relevant.
In an interview he gave last October, John Delaney referred to the league as a “problem child” and claimed that RTE offered the FAI money not to show the League what are your thoughts on this? I’m not aware about the quote but lets grab that. You would like the league to have more engagement with the audience than it does. I asked audience research to have a look at the games this year and they’re averaging in and around 60,000 viewers per game we’ve shown. That gives an average share of around 4.5/4.6 of the audience. The average share of the RTE 2 audience in peak time is over 7 per cent so you can see that’s the barometer but it’s very really important to say, that’s not a criticism, it is what it is. When people say, “well you should be doing two matches a week” you’ve got to contextualise it. I absolutely accept 100% that every constituency of lovers of their sport believes more should be shown and more media coverage should be given specifically by the national broadcaster. But I can put my hand on my heart and look you in the eye and say there are those that think we’re not doing enough GAA, there are those that think we’re not doing enough rugby, and on through the sports. So within that view I can understand it but our job is to reflect, the best we can the varied multiple interests of the audience in sport and the SSE Airtricity League has it’s place and I would say that 17 live matches and a weekly hour long programme like Soccer Republic that is a more than reasonable commitment from the national broadcaster to the league. We have limited budgets so we have had to make choices in the last four or five years in particular. Those choices have been stark and they’ve been hard and the Airtricity League has not significantly suffered in those choices. We had to walk away from the English Premier League to make savings, we had to walk away from the Heineken European Cup and the Pro 12 in rugby, from professional boxing which we were doing a significant amount. I think the suggestion that we’re not doing enough is, in this instance, unfair on occasion.
RTE has cameras at every Premier Division game to record highlights for Soccer Republic, could RTE not do some deal with the clubs whereby they could stream these games live on their club websites which could maybe generate them some much needed revenue? I think it’s important to remember that our relationship isn’t with the individual clubs, it’s with the FAI as it is in every contract we have, i.e. our contract for the Champions League is with UEFA. The FAI choose, as do every other organisation, how they package and deliver their media rights to the industry. So we are in a contract that is being shared with Setanta, who also have commitments they’ve made with the FAI. Not everything is within our gift. And even if it were within our gift there is this perception that you can just rock up, throw a camera on it and it’ll be grand. It won’t be. These things cost a significant amount of money.
Do you think Rovers have a point on the issue of compensation? I can’t comment on this because it’s not our business how Shamrock Rovers deal with the FAI. It is not our business how the FAI deal with Shamrock Rovers and I get aggravated when I hear people say how RTE Sport should run its business when they fundamentally don’t understand what’s going on underneath the bonnet. What is good for the league needs to be decided by the clubs and the governing body, not by RTE.
So RTE are going to broadcast Rovers home game against Dundalk in October regardless of what the clubs say? What we will do, and I’m very quick again to say this isn’t us with Rovers or Dundalk it’s about us saying right what is the best game for the audience, where’s the story, there’s no point in us doing a mid division match. Whatever chance you have of exposure is around the big games. Again that’s nothing specific about the Airtricity League. Look at the English Premier League, if there’s a Sunday afternoon game between two mid table teams you less likely to watch it but if it’s Manchester United v Manchester City the bums will be on the seats. It’s the same everywhere, the best teams are the ones people want to see. When Rovers play Dundalk next month that’s the match we want to see, it isn’t about trying to upset Rovers it’s about trying to put the best product we can, for the league, and for us, to the audience.
In July Dundalk played Cork City in Oriel Park in a top of the table clash yet RTE decided not to broadcast the game. Why was this? We have made the decision, and part of our agreement with the FAI is that we concentrate predominantly on the beginning and the end of the season. We have the ability to drop in every now and then, but again they have relationships with other broadcasters so that has to be taken into account. There’s an argument to be made every single time, “well that match is the most important” it may be at that particular time but frankly towards the business end of the league usually is where the vast majority of the interest is and that’s where we choose to focus. If we shoot off to many signals too early then we’ll get criticised at the back end of the season, if we’ve only got three signals left and there’s still six weeks left in the league. So there’s a bit of you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I understand the frustration but over the balance of a whole season I’m not sure it’s fair.
Do you feel RTE are doing everything they can to support the league? Within the constraints that we have I think we are doing everything we can, absolutely. Something you touched on earlier was the issue of kick off times and I’d like to explain how this works. Kick off times are difficult for everybody but what I would say regarding that is sometimes we have clashes because we have contracts with other organisations and we have to make a decision about what we can do. What we’re trying to do from our perspective, which in theory is supposed to benefit the league, is put the games in the places that we think we’ll get the best audience for. So Monday night 7.30 isn’t ideal for supporters, I absolutely accept it isn’t ideal for travelling supporters in particular, but is it a place where it is clear the volume of people sitting down to watch television, the available audience, is there and it absolutely is. So I suppose it brings it back to the fans and the clubs, to the league, which is more important. If the decision is that television is not more important well then ok stop showing it. That’s not a threat or anything, but if you want to promote the league, and you want to get the best available audience to give it its best chance then you’re going to have to take it from the broadcasters perspective that Monday at 7/8 o’clock is where the bums are on seats. The vast majority of people on a Monday night ain’t going out. That’s where the biggest audience is and that’s what we try to do because we want this to be as good as it possibly can, it’s in our interests as well. I accept that it inconveniences but it’s not solely us that do it, our friends across the water do it on a regular basis. Sometimes we have no choice, there are clashes with other sports so it’s a balancing act.
After a few early teething problems I think Soccer Republic has developed into a very good programme but what’s with the scheduling that it’s aired at 11 pm on a Monday night? Soccer Republic’s ratings have improved in comparison to the slot that Monday Night Soccer was which was 7.30. At the time I know there was a fairly strong reaction from people who felt it was being pushed to the perimeter of the schedule. It wasn’t doing particularly good business in the slot it was in. I accept that the fact it’s later maybe excludes a lot of younger viewers but with the RTE Player this is not so much of a challenge and the viewing figures have increased. We work very hard with that show as well. Pound for pound if you look at the production standards of that show and what we do across all our sports, it stands up to scrutiny. It’s not something that’s just slapped together and thrown out there on a Monday night when we hope it’s not going to receive much attention. There is a dedicated team of guys who work extremely hard to get it as right as we possibly can and we are proud of that programme.
Finally, Sky Sports are going to start showing EPL games on a Friday night next season, what kind of effect may this have on how the Airtricity League is broadcast? We have to look at all the challenges the one thing you can be guaranteed now in the sports broadcasting landscape is that you aren’t going to get a year on year mirror of what happened before because everybody’s looking for an edge or look at different ways for what they’re doing. The plates are moving all the time. We’ll deal with every season as it comes along, but trying to preempt it is not doable because you’re never sure what’s going to come around the corner. Friday night games in the EPL? It’ll be interesting to see how they work. I don’t know when they’re planning on showing these games, it could be near the end of their season, I just don’t know how it’s going to play out. It is an incredibly competitive market and there is a reasonable comparison to be made between what the SSE Airtricity League is up against and what RTE Sport is up against. We are competing against the biggest and best funded broadcasters not only in Europe but arguably the world. Everybody in this country who is working in an industry that has competition from the UK is invariably working trying to chase down Big Brother and that’s what we do, we’re all fighting for our spot. And it’s not easy, it’s incredibly challenging but what I think we are good at is having a bit of dexterity and seeing what’s coming down the line, you just have to box clever. I understand why the core fans and supporters of the Airtricity League get worried at times but like I said to you at the very outset, and we’ve come full circle here, I can genuinely sit in front of any of the boards of the clubs or of the supporters groups and say “show me where we don’t care about the league?” I can sit in front of these guys and say honestly that I think what we do for the league is fair.