Sky to pull the plug on coverage of the Irish League
Sky Sports has pulled the plug on its coverage of Irish League football.
The broadcaster has screened local matches for the last seven years but won't be showing any more fixtures – at least for the foreseeable future.
It means no live coverage of the local game on TV screens this season. It will be a severe blow to the Irish League, which has enjoyed exposure across the UK and beyond through Sky's coverage.
Sky Sports declined to comment yesterday. However, an Irish League source said: "It will be a disaster because Sky has done so much to improve coverage of our league.
"The league needs much more media coverage than it is getting, so the prospect of losing someone like Sky is damaging."
Sky Sports agreed a landmark deal to show five games a season in April 2007 as part of a £10m agreement with the IFA which also involved live coverage of Northern Ireland games.
Its first game was a 2-2 draw between Cliftonville and Linfield at the start of the 2007/08 campaign.
Over the next seven years, Sky covered nearly every side in the league, bringing unprecedented exposure to local clubs.
It is understood the broadcaster enjoyed healthy ratings for its Irish League games. Coverage was fronted by Graham Little with Mark Robson and ex-Northern Ireland striker Gerry Armstrong the regular pairing in the commentary box.
Sky's last game was the Glentoran v Linfield clash towards the end of last season.
An IFA source confirmed yesterday there would be no coverage this season. However, officials have not ruled out negotiating some form of TV coverage in the future.
Because Irish League games were only a small part of the multi-million pound deal, it is unlikely to be a severe financial impact to clubs. Instead, it will be the loss of exposure which will hurt most.
It is understood a new arrangement for selling TV rights to international football is behind the development.
Rights to international fixtures have been centralised by UEFA, meaning European football's governing body – and not individual football associations – is responsible for negotiating broadcast contracts.
The IFA's domestic deal with Sky had been tied in with its international contract.
However, the latest contract, which covers all of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 games, was handled by UEFA and did not include any commitment to televise league games. Thus coverage of the domestic game has fallen by the wayside.
An IFA source said: "Do we have any games planned for this season? Unfortunately the answer is no. "However, we do still have a good relationship with Sky, as we do with other broadcasters, including the BBC. We will keep the relationship open and perhaps things will change in the future."
Ex-Linfield boss David Jeffrey had been among many local football fans who had praised the broadcaster's coverage of the Irish League.
He wrote in a recent Sunday Life column: "There really is an audience there. My friends at Sky Sports tell me that when they screen an Irish League game on a Monday evening throughout the season, the ratings are excellent."