The occasion was Kerry vs. Offaly — the first satellite broadcast of an All Ireland final to the United States, which he and two other GAA enthusiasts from County Mayo had organized.
“They’d never seen Ireland since they left,”
he said of a large percentage of the spectators that morning. “It was a different era.” Many indeed had never been to Croke Park in Dublin, though it had figured in their thoughts and daydreams since childhood.
Now they could see it live, or almost. There was a three-second delay.
“We were very proud,” Fitzgerald, a native of Irishtown near the County Galway border. “Anything could have gone wrong,” he added.
But nothing did.
He and Mickey Glynn, who was originally from Claremorris, went on to oversee the first 25 years of the satellite era in Gaelic sports in America. Then in 1998, the now troubled Setanta did a deal with the GAA, cutting G&F Sports out of the action. “We were heartbroken,” Fitzgerald said about losing the contract. “We were bitterly disappointed.
“We were all GAA people,” he added. “We were so much into it.”
It all began when Fitzgerald was working for New York Telephone at 32 Ave. of the Americas, near Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. “I got to know a lot of people in the building,” he recalled. Some of them worked in network radio for AT&T on the 24th floor.
Fitzgerald said: “I was talking to one of the guys from there and asked him if it possible [to broadcast games via satellite from Ireland]. He said: ‘We can do it.'”
Fitzgerald, Glynn and Kiltimagh native Mattie Forde went to Ireland to discuss the idea with GAA president Pat Fanning, the organization’s general secretary Sean O Siochain and RTE commentator Michael O’Hehir.
O Siochain would refer to them as the “three American cowboys.” Underlying the joking was a concern that it couldn’t be done. That it could be done was proven first by the Muhammad Ali/Al “Blue” Lewis fight, which was broadcast from Croke Park in July 1972.
Ali won, but the All Ireland final was a draw. Offaly won the replay. A total of 13,000 people saw the two games in two venues.
The program was sent from Croke Park to RTE Studios, up to Belfast, across to London, up to Goonhilly in Scotland where it was uplinked to the satellite owned by Comsat. After it was downlinked at Andover, Me., it went down to 32 Ave. of the Americas at Canal Street in Manhattan. Then finally, it went up to the Paradise in the Bronx and out to the Loew’s Triborough, in Astoria, Queens.
In 1973, they did hurling, and the operation spread to Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and San Francisco. When RTE started to broadcast the semifinals live in the late 1970s, they were covered, too.
From the mid-1980s (by which point Forde had left to pursue other business interests) the games were shown through an extensive national network of bars. As many as 30,000 in the New York area alone would watch the top games (paying $20, the same amount that fans parted with in 1972).
Fitzgerald said G & F Sports worked in alliance with reliable people in other cities, such as Mike Kenny in Chicago, Tim Murphy in San Francisco and Billy Kelly in Boston.
Looking back to the early days, he said, cooperation with a variety of organizations was essential. “The BBC was very helpful, and AT&T bent over backwards for us,” he recalled.
And back in Ireland, people were understanding with late payment of bills during tough times.
“Our families did a lot of work,” he added.
However, they didn’t actually make the breakfasts, which everyone seems to associate with G & F Sports. “The bars did that,” Fitzgerald said.