This week, I caught up with Mark Sidebottom, who has long been the face of the BBC's GAA coverage.
He is a respected journalist/presenter and has a wealth of knowledge in most sports, particularly hurling, which is his first love. A fine hurler in his day, now dabbling in some coaching, and with four beautiful kids and wife Ciara, he is a fun person to be around, a jovial character - but don't be fooled by his demeanour, this is an extremely knowledgeable journalist. Relaxed before live coverage, he exudes the professionalism to succeed in a high-pressure industry.
Oisin: You are the BBC NI TV voice for GAA during the summer. How has Covid-19 impacted your career?
Mark: In a purely sporting context, Covid-19 stopped play both locally and globally. In my experience, 2020 has been super surreal. From those early apocalyptic days of spring, when the coming pandemic prompted panic in me, through the uncertainty of summer and the unknown of autumn/winter, I’ve found the journey oddly transformative. My wife Ciara, who’s an NHS physiotherapist, contracted Covid-19 early in the pandemic, as did our youngest son. We quarantined as a family for two weeks and they both recovered, but it was a stressful time. I really enjoy live broadcasting and its myriad of challenges, especially the impromptu and unscripted side of it all, and that buzz is difficult to replace. I miss not being on set, not fronting BBC’s summer GAA coverage, not anchoring the Saturday Final Score Irish League programme, and not being live in the studio or on location for BBC Newsline.
Oisin: Having live sport is crucial to any network but with the current crisis, is it returning too soon?
Mark: I don’t think so... the new factor in the life equation is risk, and by that I mean both risk assessment and risk management. Covid-19 is here to stay and we have to adapt. Vaccine or no vaccine there is no going back to the pre-pandemic state of things. Sport, like commerce and business, must find a new way and already we can see that happening. In the absence of live sport, we saw the deepening of the digital pool of content made available to fans, most big sporting bodies threw open the doors to their archives as a means of keeping the public connected, but that won’t work long-term. There are probably three primary strands to the sustainable sports business model; broadcasting media rights, commercial partnerships and match day revenue. If sport doesn’t resume, TV deals unravel, sponsorship and advertising dry up and, at the apex of this triangular relationship, clubs crumble. Sport is largely moving in step with media consumption, which is increasingly finding a home and audience online. A very obvious local example of this is the proliferation of GAA county boards recognising they can monetise the club product by streaming their games live and arguably catching the big broadcasters on the hop. I welcome the initiative, there’s nothing like competition to make us all up our game — the audience wins.
Oisin: GAA is not just work for you, but life as well. Tell us about your playing days and your input into your club.
Mark: My late father Robert Arthur Sidebottom was from Todmorden, a market town in West Yorkshire, and loved his cricket, hockey and football. My mum Eilish is a McDonnell from the Glens. Her father and brothers knew only hurling for Antrim and the Glenariffe Oisíns, so it was hurling all the way for me and my four brothers. I was a pretty decent club hurler and played for 15 years with Glenariffe through a lot of lean and occasionally bountiful seasons. I also played in the Fitzgibbon Cup for Queen’s University with many gifted hurlers such as the Downey brothers, Henry and Seamus, from Lavey, Paul and Barry Coulter of Down and Ballygalget, Jim Close of Antrim and Rossa, Ali McAllister, Mick Braniff, Collie McGuirk... all great characters. We toured North America, playing in Boston, Philadelphia and at the famous Gaelic Park ground in New York. Hurling has given me so much, I love it and played well into my forties with the Bredagh club on Belfast’s Ormeau Road. A decade ago we won an Ulster Junior Final in Clones. When work permits, I now coach with St Brigid’s here in South Belfast.
Oisin: How committed is BBC Sport NI to GAA?
Mark: I’d answer that by saying BBC NI is increasingly committed to finding ways of growing its GAA coverage in what is a crowded and complex market. As a public service broadcaster, it’s no secret that BBC does not have the deepest pockets, but its depth of reach, especially digitally, is unrivalled and I believe the GAA recognises this. I’d say relations between the BBC and Croke Park have never been better. Under BBC NI’s Head of Sport, Neil Brittain, I’m confident our entire sporting audience will continue to be well served. Gaelic games, club and county, form a key part of our overall portfolio.
Oisin: In your normal week, how do you plan for commentary/ presenting?
Mark: I’m quite zen, I don’t like to over prepare. I trust in myself and avoid the trap of information overload which can disrupt the flow or narrative of live sport. On my journey to any game, I stick on BBC Radio Three. I never listen to sports programmes on the drive to a match. Commentary is difficult to do well and quite unforgiving, so I’ve great respect for anyone who gives it a rattle. In the presenter’s seat, brevity allied to listening is what I aim for.
Oisin: What has been your greatest moment behind the microphone?
Mark: I’ve had the privilege of commentating All-Ireland Football Finals but my first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final in 1999 was a proud day for me. BBC broadcast Kilkenny v Cork live on TV — oh, to have those days back again.
Oisin: And the worst?
Mark: I’ve had a few. I once completely corpsed during the build-up to an Ulster Rugby game live on TV — I forgot who I was and where I was. One Christmas Final Score programme was also rather testing for me and the audience, due to a timing fault. I was left to fill for over a minute, which is a long time on live TV. I ended up singing ‘When Santa got stuck up the chimney’ — poor audience.
Oisin: A game that lives long in the memory?
Mark: The 2014 All-Ireland Football Semi-Final when Donegal brilliantly ambushed Dublin. Donegal coming from a raggle-taggle band of merry men to win the 2012 All-Ireland title is for me one of the biggest single turnarounds in the history of Gaelic games.
Oisin: How can GAA help the media?
Mark: Build trust and keep open lines of communication. It’s a reciprocal relationship. The media has a maintenance responsibility.
Oisin: Do you like the amateur ethos of the sport?
Mark: I do, but let’s not pretend at elite club and inter-county level the game is professional in everything but name. There’s no player transfer market but it’s nonsense to suggest that’s not the case with managers. In my view, the club managerial merry-go-round is an especially lucrative one. How can a club or county player not feel neglected when it’s routinely known that some — but not all — managers are being handsomely paid? Love of the parish is losing out to love of the purse. Amateurism is central to the GAA and that core belief, that ethos is being tested to the point of erosion, in my opinion. Our most precious commodity is our children — if we trust the club volunteers to nurture them at under-age, we should also trust that each club and county has the talent to nurture its own at senior level. I love to see clubs and counties appoint managers and trainers from within. It is what the GAA is about and long may that continue. I would rather lose a county Final with a volunteer manager than win it with a ‘bought-in’ manager to be perfectly honest. I’d like to see the market in migrating managers shut down.