When the FAI took Murdoch's Schilling

As any Ireland supporter would tell you, the Boys in Green have over the years bestowed upon the nation moments of pure joy and jubilation. David O’Leary’s penalty, Ray Houghton’s goal - which one? Doesn’t matter! Most of us will die happy. But alas, where euphoria travels, decimation is not too far behind.

 

Our Boys in Green have also been guilty of inflicting many miserable, sleepless nights on its loyal following. The ‘what ifs’ that would leave you screaming into your pillow, never mind crying. Ray Houghton’s Wembley miss, Stavrevski’s equaliser in Skopje, Saipan…

 

A list as long as your arm.

The 5th of July 2002 would certainly fall into the screaming category. That was the date your writer as a 17-year-old boy switched on TV3 news and learnt that the FAI had sold their soul to BSKYB.

 

For a hefty €7.5m, the price of eternal damnation, SKY had snatched the rights to broadcast every home Irish international “Live and Exclusive” for the next four years, with TV3 showing the highlights an hour after the final whistle. For the first time in 40 years, RTE would be left out in the cold.

 

The mantra emanating from Merrion Square was that this new agreement would help secure the future of Irish football, even if that meant restricting access to the Boys in Green on telly to a mere 236,000 SKY Sports subscribers - 6% of the population in 2002. Armchair supporters would now be required to fork out a subscription fee of €40 per month for something they had previously enjoyed for years and for free - notwithstanding a licence fee and this was described at the time by Honorary Treasurer John Delaney as the “optimum solution”.

 

The dust had barely settled on Saipan and now the FAI were telling the public that paying €500 per year on top of a €100 installation fee, for something they already owned, was the “optimum solution”. The public was outraged and who could blame them?

 

This was an own goal of epic proportions, a PR disaster for the governing body. The FAI were bombarded with angry phone calls, letter of protests and even calls for the IRFU, the owners of the Lansdowne Road stadium, to evict their neighbours from their adopted home. Personally I wouldn't be one bit surprised if the rugby chiefs were quietly cheering on their competitors, hoping the FAI would set a precedent, clearing a path for outside investment.

Incredibly the FAI had predicted that the nation would see the bigger picture and be happy about SKY's new stranglehold on Irish football. The association had just finished inflicting their dirty laundry upon the globe for the past six weeks, yet its hierarchy were somehow caught off guard by the negative reaction towards this latest kick in the teeth.

 

The FAI back in 2002 could be accused of many things but having its finger on the pulse was not one of them.

Brendan Menton General Secretary of the FAI in 2002 said of the public's ire: “What the FAI had underestimated was the public reaction to the deal. We had focused on its positive impact for development. I had not factored in the upset caused to armchair supporters... who contributed nothing to the game”.

 

The obvious flaw in Menton’s logic was the dereliction towards genuine football supporters who could not afford to travel and support their beloved Irish team in the flesh. The role of the FAI is to safeguard football in Ireland for supporters, not take it away from them. What about our next generation of Boys in Green? By limiting football’s audience to pay TV you are simply prodding youngsters towards other free-to-air sports. The FAI’s short-term solution would no doubt have long-term consequences for football in this country. Perhaps another organisation, a reputable entity, could pull off the art of selling snow to an Eskimo but the maligned FAI were in no position to do so.

 

How the deal came about

RTE’s rights to air Ireland home games were approaching renewal, their current deal of €637,000 per year over four years would expire in September 2002. Preliminary negotiations had begun between the FAI and RTE in July 2001, however, money had not yet been discussed.

 

After ten months of silence a firm offer would finally arrive in April 2002 from RTE:

 

€400,000 per year for four years, including all internationals, the FAI Cup semi-finals, final and FIVE domestic live games per year was laid out - a 37% reduction on what RTE were currently paying. 

 

Unbeknown to the state broadcaster, the FAI had also received  an offer from SKY:

 

€1.875m per year for exclusive rights over four years.

Based on commercial assessments, the FAI felt that €1.5m per annuum from RTE, which was less than Sky’s offer, was a fair deal for their prized asset. The cash strapped RTE could only offer 27% percent of that.

According to Brendan Menton, when the FAI disclosed their figures to RTE’s delegates they were aghast, resulting in an abrupt exit front the room, leaving the door wide open for Sky. Were RTE really that out of touch, or simply just arrogant? God only knows.

Not only was SKY’s proposal far more lucrative, the satellite giant also offered a platform to grow the game domestically in Ireland as well at Under-age level. On the other hand, RTE had always shown a disregard for the League of Ireland and still do. In years gone by, the national broadcaster would only acquiesce to showing the odd game here and there as merely a pathway to the International team, the crown jewel of the FAI and a ratings winner for RTE. 

 

With no counter from RTE looking likely, the FAI took the only feasible offer left on the table - they had taken Murdoch’s Schilling.

 

The nation gasps in despair

 

RTE had claimed that discussions with the FAI were ongoing when rumours began to surface of a deal with SKY. “Puzzled and angered”, they had contacted the FAI looking for clarification, which was met with a “No Comment” and that a statement would be made “shortly”.

 

The FAI's honorary treasurer, John Delaney, defended the decision to sell the rights to the highest bidder and the association’s behaviour throughout. Delaney also claimed that the FAI's agent in the negotiations, Laurence St John, had informed RTÉ about the deal, a claim backed up by Brendan Menton.

The FAI, through the sins of their fathers and those (not all) still holding power in that organisation, were therefore snookered by finances.

 

They had a league with no exposure and a broadcast partner unwilling to touch it with a barge pole, except under duress.

They were left with no stadium after the government’s promise of building one never materialised - the same government who had encouraged the FAI to abandon its own plans for its very own arena - Eircom Park. The chance of a permanent revenue stream had been sabotaged on the promise of a National Stadium dubbed the “Bertie Bowl, an expensive folly which never even broke ground, never mind get off it.

 

The association were left with the only viable option for financial growth, maximising the commercial potential of their one and only commodity - the men’s senior team. For years RTE had underpaid for the TV rights of the Boys in Green and they knew it. Back in the day you could be excused for such a flippant attitude, however this was the digital age in a commercial Ireland and the lads from Dublin 4 were no longer the only game in town. For months rumours had surfaced, including a huge spread in the Daily Star, about a possible deal between the FAI and Sky, yet RTE had remained dormant.

The State broadcaster had shown little or no interest in developing the game at domestic level yet were happy to pay €1.3m per year for English Premiership highlights. When you throw in production costs etc, that figure looks increasingly like €2m.

 

SKY on the other hand had a track record and the resources for developing football and were no strangers to the Irish international team. They had acquired rights for Live coverage of home games in December of 1999 in a two-and-a-half-year deal worth a reported £4.25m, which had still allowed RTE in on the action.

The Horse has bolted

Having dropped the ball in Ireland's quest for a National Stadium, the government were keen to act and not allow another political victory slip through their fingers.

 

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had vowed to fight the good fight:

 

'Our position is that we believe the legal position is clearly on our side - and, if we have to, we will impose that position. 'I am not trying to take any money away from the FAI - the best of luck to them. They need money and have outlined to us their problems, which we acknowledge. 'The position for us is that we have a clear law in this country and a clear European Union directive. That means that the people of this country are entitled to watch major events free to air. 'If we are pushed to do that, we will impose it. The FAI will get their advice and Sky, I am sure, are not averse to taking a legal case. But I can see solutions to it. 'We are the sovereign government and there is legislation and an EU directive, and it is quite clear. We cannot sit around and disenfranchise a large part of the population from seeing matches they are allowed to see.'

 

The Taoiseach was correct, there had been legislation in place to prevent such a deal in 2002.

 

So how could the FAI sell our beloved Boys in Green to a British Pay TV service, might you ask? Simple. The government just never bothered to implement it.

 

The Broadcasting Act of 1999 was legislation based on the EU’s Television Without Frontiers Act of 1992. This would essentially allow the Irish government to draw up a shortlist of sporting events that held significant importance for the nation, making them available on free-to-air television. When that legislation was drawn up, Minister for Communications Síle  De Valera had failed to shortlist any of Ireland’s treasured sporting events, thus leaving them unprotected. As a direct consequence, in February 2002 rugby fans were forced to watch Ireland’s Six Nations match against England at Twickenham on Sky Sports, five months before the FAI’s deal with SKY.

 

There had been a precedent, a warning that this could happen again and on a much bigger scale then one solitary game, yet Ireland’s minsters were caught sleeping at the wheel. The reason given for De Valera’s apathy, was the country’s sporting bodies’ reluctance to be included on a list that could potentially force each association to undersell their television rights. Another example of the tail wagging the dog in Ireland.

The Aftermath

Airst casualty of the deal was Ireland’s 1-2 defeat against Switzerland, on the 16th of October 2002. The result was Mick McCarthy’s first (and only) competitive loss at home as Ireland manager. That defeat compounded by the 4-2 hammering in Moscow (which RTE showed Live) the previous month would leave Ireland with no points on the board for Portugal 2004 and subsequently no manager.

 

In February 2003, the Irish Government had finally updated legislation that would allow terrestrial stations to retrospectively challenge the deal between the SKY and the FAI in the high court. Also, after four years, finally a list that would keep games of national importance on free to air television would be making its way into law.  Understandably, though few would sympathise, SKY were furious at the decision and had threatened legal action against Bertie and co. The FAI on the other hand, were reluctant to rock the boat and jeopardise their government funding of €1.5m per year. After a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement, the FAI slipped out the side door, leaving SKY to face the music.

Taking advantage of the new legislation, RTE had begun legal proceedings against the FAI and SKY on the 23rd of May 2003. There was hope that Ireland’s two crucial home qualifiers against Georgia and Albania on the 7th and 11th of June could be salvaged and shown on free-to-air television – only if a lengthy and costly legal battle was avoided.

 

Thankfully, common sense prevailed. SKY and the FAI had altered their deal, removing exclusivity, with a remuneration of the financial package, allowing for the Boys in Green’s to finally return to free to air telly in the Republic of Ireland. RTE pounced and a deal was struck between the three parties. The FAI would now receive €5.5m over four years with LIVE home qualifiers now shown on SKY and RTE, with the former keeping exclusive rights to home friendlies. TV3 on the other hand were stuck with a highlights package of a game, that most people would have already seen - ouch.  

 

When everything was sorted out, the FAI politely suggested that the Government pick up the €2m shortfall after their hijacking of the deal with SKY. The laughter is probably still heard at Leinster House to this day.

 

Brand new FAI CEO Fran Rooney, Menton's successor, was philosophical of the outcome and loss of earnings, he believed that the association had achieved a moral victory: “this was about the cash and value of our TV rights, we’re very happy about the deal” . To be fair, the CEO's hands were tied and the value of Ireland games as a commodity would not be taken for granted again and nor should they. Never one to miss a political open goal, the Taoiseach jubilantly proclaimed: “earlier this year I vowed I would succeed in the return of top-class soccer to free television… I have been as good as my word”.

 

Shame about the Bertie Bowl, though…

 

David Dunne

© 2020 by David Dunne.