Leinster Rugby Chief Executive Mick Dawson feels that the Minister for Communications’ plans to designate Heineken Cup matches involving Irish sides as ‘free-to-air’ events are ill-advised.
It emerged last week that Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan is hoping to use Irish legislation and an EU directive to ensure that certain events, including Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations matches and Heineken Cup games involving Irish sides, are ‘free-to-air’ for all television viewers.
The Audio Visual Media Services Directive and Broadcasting Act provides that EU member states may designate certain sporting and cultural events in order to make them available on free television.
Events that are already available for all Irish television viewers on a ‘free-to-air’ basis include Ireland’s Rugby World Cup games, the Summer Olympics, the All-Ireland Football and Hurling Championship finals and the Irish Grand National and the Irish Derby.
Minister Ryan, who expressed a desire to introduce the measures by next year, says that certain events are ‘an important part of our indentity, part of our culture.’
“These events are part of what we are as a nation and their enjoyment should be available to all,” he explained.
“These special events should not be limited to those who have a subscription or pay-per-view service – they warrant the widest possible access for Irish people.”
Leinster Rugby Chief Executive Mick Dawson feels that the proposed switch of live Heineken Cup rugby from current UK and Ireland rights holders, Sky Sports, to ‘free-to-air’ TV would have an extremely detrimental effect on Irish rugby.
“We’ve worked very hard and the IRFU has worked very hard, to keep the players in Ireland,” he told a Leinster press conference.
“We could be looking at a situation where you go back to what is was like 10 years ago, where most of the best players were playing in England and we were scratching around here.
“That would be very sad. The development of the game would suffer because we wouldn’t be able to afford to have as many development officers in the field.
“The better players obviously have a short window at a career like this and they would go as well.
“You could end up with a situation where the Minister, who obviously hasn’t thought this out, could be looking at a free-to-air situation but nobody would want to watch it.
“People want to watch competitive, successful teams and if you take the best players out, people will stop supporting you and people don’t want to watch it. So I would be worried if it happens.”
Commenting on the issue last week, IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne said: “Ireland’s ability to compete at the highest levels, both internationally and at European club level, has brought tremendous enjoyment and pride to the country as a whole and has been built on rugby’s ability to invest major financial resources in our teams.
“We will obviously engage actively with the Minister and his Department as part of the consultative process to ensure any proposals being brought forward would not lead to a weakening of our teams’ abilities to compete, and so strike at the very heart of the game in this country.”
Dawson is understandably keen for Leinster to remain as competitive as possible at the very highest level, with the province having won the Magners League and Heineken Cup in successive seasons. They are also very much in the hunt to win another league title later this month.
He warned that a possible loss of Heineken Cup TV revenue would have serious implications for the Irish game, both on the pitch and in the boardroom.
“You’re looking at a situation where there could be a huge hole in the budgets of the IRFU and we’re part of the IRFU family, to a certain extent,” added Dawson.
“A lot of our funding comes through that medium and if that happened I’m told it could take €;10 or €;12m out of the IRFU budget.
“They (Sky) are huge payers, but the real situation is that at the ERC and Six Nations tables the IRFU are able to punch their weight in terms of the game we play on the pitch and the game we play off the pitch.
“If you become a non-player in these negotiations because you’re bringing nothing to the table and everything is free here, then your monies just dry up.
“You could fall off the table and your influence and power could diminish completely.
“Obviously the money is a serious factor out of all our budgets, so I would be worried if it happened and there will be representations made at a high level.”
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