Government update on free-to-air sport review expected in ‘near future’ – The Irish Times
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin is currently considering a report on which sporting and other events of national importance should remain free-to-air and expects a review of the current list to proceed to the next phase “in the near future,” her department said.
The minister opened a public consultation on the list of major event designations in December 2020, saying that placing events “of great importance to society” behind paywalls “unfairly excludes” some viewers. The consultation ended on January 14, 2021, but no further update was released.
Responding to an inquiry, the department said the process was still ongoing but had been put on hold due to the pandemic.
“Responses to an initial public consultation were analyzed and a report of the results was produced. As Covid-19 restrictions remained a significant factor throughout the 2021 sporting year, it was decided to suspend the naming review until the 2022 sporting year was complete and sporting federations had an opportunity to return to normal activities,” it said.
“The Minister is currently reviewing the matter and expects to move on to the next phase of the review process in the near future.”
A review of the list of designated free-to-air events was last completed by the Government in 2017, at which time All-Ireland Senior Ladies’ Football and the Camogie Final were added.
On that occasion, live coverage of Ireland’s participation in the men’s Six Nations was considered for inclusion, but the matches were left in ‘deferred’ status, meaning that there was a pay-tv or subscription video on-demand companies are able to buy the rights to the rugby championship and show the games free-to-air on a live basis.
Matches are currently being shown free of charge on either RTÉ or Virgin Media as part of a broader Six Nations joint rights deal, which also includes the women’s Six Nations and the men’s U20 event.
The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) has objected to any change in the Six Nations’ status on the list, arguing that a free-to-air live designation would cause them “significant financial damage”.
However, RTÉ and Virgin Media have urged the government to include live Six Nations matches in the list, while there have also been calls for matches in the women’s Six Nations to be given the same designation.
As part of the review process, interested parties can propose events to be removed or added to the list, which in practice would mean that they would have to be broadcast by either RTÉ, Virgin Media Television or TG4.
The current roster also includes the Summer Olympics, the All-Ireland Senior Football and Hurling Finals, Ireland’s men’s games at the Rugby World Cup, the Irish Grand National and Irish Derby, and the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show.
The football matches on the list are the Republic of Ireland matches (including qualifiers) at the European Football Championship and the Fifa World Cup and the opening, semi-finals and finals of these tournaments.
As with Tokyo 2020 and the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, companies that do not operate free-to-air channels can still buy the rights to events on the list, but then must either get a free terrestrial channel or sublicense for a certain level of coverage assigned to a free-to-air broadcaster.
In this case, Discovery Communications, now Warner Bros Discovery, has entered into a sub-license agreement with RTÉ. The two companies have since agreed a joint rights deal with the International Olympic Committee for the period 2026-2032.
The list of major events, first drawn up in 2003 when the pay-tv industry was experiencing spectacular growth, is allowed under EU rules. Several EU members maintain such lists, as does the UK, where the protected free-to-air events are often referred to as sport’s ‘crown jewels’.