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From La Liga to county GAA finals - celebrating 20 years of TG4’s innovative sports coverage

The channel’s Head of Sport, Rónán Ó Coisdealbha, chats to The42 about their legacy after two decades.

TG4 presenters Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill and Gráinne McElwain.
TG4 presenters Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill and Gráinne McElwain.
Image: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

THERE MAY HAVE been some skepticism about the idea of an Irish language channel amid its launch on Halloween night 20 years ago, but since then, TG4 has garnered plenty of acclaim for its innovative programming and efforts to keep the Irish language relevant.

One of the channel’s biggest successes over the past two decades has been its sports coverage, with a diverse range of programming, from the short-lived but fondly remembered Spanish football show ‘Olé Olé’ (which has been written about comprehensively here) to its extensive coverage of county GAA clashes and Pro12 rugby over the years.

Rónán Ó Coisdealbha has been there since the early days to experience all the highs and lows, first with the aforementioned ’Olé Olé’ and subsequently as Head of Sport since the summer of 1999.

But with the arrival of TV3 and eir Sport (formerly Setanta Sports) not long after TG4 started up, the channel has had to compete in an increasingly competitive market with a considerably smaller budget than its main rivals.

harte GAA Beo Presenter Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and Mickey Harte.

Consequently, TG4′s aim has always been to look for sports and competitions that weren’t being shown elsewhere but which still had the potential to attract viewers.

“The Allianz Leagues and the national football and hurling leagues were never covered live except the finals by RTÉ, so we saw a gap in the market,” Ó Coisdealbha tells The42. ”It was the same with county GAA hurling and football finals, and AIB club and all that.

Back in the late ’90s RTÉ primarily concentrated on the Championship, and maybe the league finals and the club finals, so there wasn’t that much GAA on TV. The challenge for us was to get content and sports competitions that weren’t being aired.

“Stuff like schools rugby wasn’t being shown, the inter-provincial rugby championship wasn’t shown. So just to pick up on rights that nobody else was showing was the challenge.”

presenters Mícheál Ó Domhnaill , Gráinne McElwain and Brian Tyers. Source: Cody Glenn/SPORTSFILE

And while the channel suffered a loss of €44,000 according to its annual report last year, Ó Coisdealbha says its sports coverage has seen a “steady growth” in ratings in recent times, with combination of live sport and innovative programming helping to attract viewers.

Stuff like ‘All-Ireland Gold,’ from a GAA point of view, really put us on the map. RTÉ were never showing the old All-Irelands and YouTube wasn’t a major player 20 years ago.

“If you wanted to see old GAA footage in any county in Ireland, it wasn’t there. It was hidden away in the RTÉ archives. We showed all the old hurling and football finals back to the 1960s, and that was really good for us.”

Celtic v Barcelona TG4 broadcast both legs of Celtic's win over Barcelona in a famous 2004 Uefa Cup clash. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Other big ratings winners from down through the years include the 2004 Uefa Cup clash over two legs between Celtic and Barcelona, when the Martin O’Neill-managed team stunned the Catalan giants, whose star-studded side featured Ronaldinho and Xavi among others.

TG4 also showed the Irish Women’s Rugby team’s historic victory over New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup — a competition that no other Irish station expressed an interest in showing, according to Ó Coisdealbha.

Ashleigh Baxter, Nora Stapleton and Niamh Briggs celebrate at the final whistle TG4 broadcast Ireland's historic victory over New Zealand at the 2014 Rugby World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Women’s sport, in general, is something that the channel say they are keen to promote and cover more comprehensively than their rivals.

“In 2001, we had a meeting with the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) in Croke Park. They didn’t have a sponsor at the time and only their senior final was being covered by RTÉ.

So we had a very fruitful meeting with them and basically, we decided to sponsor the Championships and we also sponsored their All Stars. We also did a deal where we would become their official broadcaster. In the first year, we only showed about four or five games, and now we’re up to something like 18 games per year.

“It’s a great success story, ladies football on TG4, because it’s worked really well for us. And it’s also helped the LGFA get other sponsors such as Lidl on board.

“And I’m not just saying this to pay lip service, it is a policy of ours to show as much female sports as possible. It doesn’t get enough recognition and it doesn’t get enough TV coverage from other stations.

(For example) Katie Taylor we had live in 2014 at the World Boxing Championships. Female sports are important to us and when we did Wimbledon, we made sure we showed as much female competitors playing as male. So we do put an emphasis on female sports, it’s something we’ve always done and it works well for us. It’s important to viewers around Ireland to show female sports as much as male sports.”

Ó Coisdealbha also expresses disappointment that next year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup, which will be hosted by Ireland, won’t be shown on free-to-air television, with eir Sport having acquired the rights, meaning the majority of households will be unable to watch games.

Failing to secure high-profile events is a frustrating but ultimately inevitable aspect of the business, while another potential problem is the rise of the internet and its increasing grip on the public’s attention spans at the expense of TV.

trophy TG4 Peil na mBan. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

It was recently revealed that viewership figures for both the Premier League and the NFL have decreased markedly of late. TG4 may have the advantage of being free-to-air but when it sees a channel with the endless resources of Sky Sports finding it difficult to persuade viewers to tune in, there must be some concern.

“Even with my own kids, everything now is iPads, YouTube, Netflix,” Ó Coisdealbha says. ”They’re not watching linear television, they’re not going to sit down at six or seven o’clock. It’s more on-demand now.

But from a sports point of view, if it’s Munster against Leinster in the Pro12 and we have it live, then it’s live, and live content is still a big puller.

“Sky Sports are in a different boat to us because we’re a free-to-air terrestrial broadcaster. We have a 100% reach in households in Ireland and a huge advantage over the likes of EirSport, who’ve fallen off Virgin Media now.

When sponsors come talk to us about programmes or distributors who want to distribute their content on TG4, we have a huge advantage being in every household in Ireland.

“When Sky say that their Premier League ratings are down, I don’t know is it because people are watching Match of the Day more or a lot of people will see goals on Twitter, or they’re available online and maybe (with) illegal streams of games, so things are changing.”

beo GAA Beo. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

But while technology and unique initiatives may be altering people’s viewing habits to an extent and prompting a degree of uncertainty about the future of TV in the process, Ó Coisdealbha remains confident TG4 can continue to engage sports fans for another 20 years and beyond.

Sport is very important to the TG4 scheduling so at the moment, we’re doing a lot of GAA and rugby, we get really good viewership, so I would hope that we’d continue to offer that for the coming years.

“But also, the other sports — we do live basketball, we were doing the national finals in January, we work very closely with the IABA in boxing, the Tour de France we have the rights of until the end of 2019.

You can plan for a few years ahead and say we’re going to cover the following events, but things change, other properties and rights become available in the sports market. You just don’t know how the markets or budgets will be in 10 years’ time, you don’t know what effect the digital age is going to have on linear television.”

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