Some childcare complications last Sunday week put me on the horns of a dilemma about whether or not to bring a six month old baby to a venue where people were paying $25 a head to watch Tipperary versus Cork on satellite. While it's never too early to start indoctrinating children about the greatness of hurling in general and Munster hurling in particular, this particular tyke possesses the lung capacity and the shrieking ability of a much older child. With too many visions of being asked to leave early, I decided his presence would be an imposition too far on my fellow exiles.
So, instead of driving an hour, I did what tens of thousands of Irish do every weekend all over the world. I opted for the stay-at-home, illegal online option. I fired up the computer, visited my favorite GAA message board and quickly found a link to a guaranteed feed of the game, lifted direct from RTE's broadcast. I had to lurk on the site for a full minute before somebody put up a password to allow me full access. In all, the entire process took me 90 seconds and cost me absolutely nothing. Oh, running the cable from the laptop to the tv so I could watch it on a proper-sized screen did require another 30 seconds of work.
Here's the best bit. The screen was set up in such a way that there was a running online IM chat involving all the others watching the game in this way. When you are watching the action on your own or with three children under the age of 12 who don't care what's happening on the field, the bitter, exasperated, delighted comments of my fellow viewers made the whole thing that bit more entertaining. Especially during the spells when Tipperary went up a gear and reminded us it could be a while yet before the Cork hurlers can be deemed contenders.
The lesson here for the GAA is that, in case nobody in Croke Park has noticed, technology has overtaken the way the association distributes its games. Making the matches available by satellite to the diaspora gathered in pubs and clubs all across the planet was a fantastic thing to do 20 years ago. A wonderful service, a lifesaver, and something that was worth every dollar fans were prepared to pay. Back then. Of course, that set-up predated the internet and by failing to recognize this, the GAA is doing its supporters a disservice, missing out on revenue, and on opportunities to make the games more accessible.
Imagine if an emigrant could buy a season ticket for $100 entitling him or her to watch every championship game live on GAA.ie? How many of us currently scrambling around on a Sunday morning would sign up for that service, knowing we would have the ability to watch the match anywhere we travel? Wouldn't it also generate more money for the association by cutting out whatever middleman is currently taking a cut for bringing the games to bars and clubs, bars and clubs that have to pay a hefty five-figure sum the price of which is then passed on to the ordinary fans.
Then there's the matter of advertising money. If GAA.ie was a live games portal, it would be the most trafficked site for the Irish around the world, offering the association untold commercial opportunities. Think of the airlines and the betting shops queuing up to buy banner ads there for starters. All of the financial reasons are secondary anyway because the reasoning behind this is even more prosaic than cash. Tens of thousands of Irish are watching the games online anyway each week so the GAA needs to get its act together quickly and offer us the chance to do so legally and more conveniently.
There's something else to consider too. The GAA has a social responsibility that extends far beyond that of any other sporting body in Ireland. As the largest association in the land and one that has always taken seriously its role as a support structure for Irishmen and Irishwomen around the world, it can be argued that Croke Park should make the games available for free as a gesture of solidarity with the Irish abroad. With all the current talk about clubs and counties losing scores of players every month, imagine the positive reaction if the GAA came out and announced to make life easier on the newly-departed all games will be available online for free for the foreseeable future.
They might as well do something like this because the youngsters being herded onto planes for London, New York and Sydney now have grown up and spent their entire lives online. To them, the notion of having to go out of their way 10 or 15 miles to watch a Gaelic football match on television is quaint and antiquated. This generation doesn't respect firewalls or RTE's rather naïve attempt to prevent overseas visitors from watching live games on its website. These kids know too much about proxy servers and the like for that. The GAA can accept the new reality and try to keep control of and make money from the online product or it can continue to pretend that the goalposts haven't moved.
A couple of years back, the Cork county board had one of the worst websites in the country. It was outmoded and hopelessly out of date. Today, that site is one of the best GAA portals available, offering everything the fan of all things Rebel could possibly want, replete with up-to-date results, podcasts and all sorts of bells and whistles. The speed with which the Cork folk transformed (and let's face it they wouldn't be renowned for transforming themselves) the site is to be admired and applauded. It also graphically demonstrates how the organization has the capacity to do so much for its members online. Isn't it about time those making decisions about televising games realized this too?