JOHN RIORDAN: Gaelic sports get down to business in City of Brotherly Love

The biggest youth GAA tournament outside of Ireland is, on the face of it, an odd place to find a business forum.

But how else would anyone be expected to tap into this incredible potential generated annually by the Continental Youth Championships (CYC), which begin in Philadelphia tomorrow?

The CYC will celebrate its 10th year with larger participation than ever of six to 18-year-olds from all across the US and Canada. The numbers are staggering for the four-day event: around 200 teams, 2,000 registered to take part and an eye-watering 550 games that need to be shuttled around like chess pieces on a master schedule which was finally completed on Monday by tournament secretary Simon Gillespie.

The pressure has cranked up this week for the Philly-based volunteers. Twelve pitches needing to be lined and the goals needing to be erected at the latest possible moment after the last grass cut on Monday.

The tents are almost up and the parade of players and mentors takes place tonight, rolling down the Philly suburb of West Chester’s Gay Street in what will surely be a mixture of colour and confusion.

“We want people to know that the CYC is not exclusive to the Irish. This event is a perfect opportunity to continue to introduce Gaelic sports to our American friends and families,” said John McDaid, PRO for the CYC Host Committee.

As always, however, it’s what comes after. GAA President Liam O’Neill will be one of those speaking at today’s Business and Networking Forum, an event which will give all the adults charged with developing the games the chance to learn about the professional side of sports administration. How high can those grassroots grow?

“We want these kids to keep playing when they enter adulthood,” said one of the forum organisers, Liam Hegarty, originally from Donegal but living in the US for 30 years.

“We want them to bring the games to college, maybe start up new clubs or join existing clubs.”

John Nash, a former general manager at NBA teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, the then New Jersey Nets, the Portland Trail Blazers and the then Washington Bullets will join O’Neill on the top table while ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi will chair the discussion.

“John Nash has incredible experience with professional athlete contracts and all the other business decisions needed at a top level sporting organisation,” said Hegarty. “Whether we like it or not, the GAA is big business now too. It’s mostly volunteers so it’s an interesting union that John Nash is aware of but Liam O’Neill will offer a good perspective on how that can work in the US.

“John Nash is heavily involved in cross-community basketball initiatives in Northern Ireland so he certainly brings an extra level of expertise. It will be an open forum and it’ll give a chance to these coaches and parents to network with each other. You never know what business opportunities could come out of it. That’s what the GAA is all about, that sense of community.”

Hegarty says the initiative was inspired by the work a few years back in Asia of Peter Ryan who is now based in Manhattan as deputy Consul-General for the New York and mid-eastern region. Ryan was also instrumental in the annual Asian Gaelic Games, which is approaching its 20th year.

“We welcomed the opportunity to work with the leading Irish business groups in Philadelphia to introduce a business networking platform to what is now the largest annual Irish sporting event in the US,” said Ryan. “Building on the substantial economic ties that already exist between Ireland and the US, in terms of investment, trade and tourism, the Business and Networking Forum will help to connect members of the Irish community in the US with one another and with initiatives such as ‘Succeed in Ireland’ and ‘The Gathering’.”

When the adults are done talking, the kids will take over and the real action will begin. That will come as a relief of course.

But that business approach is needed if the games are to prosper as much as Croke Park hopes in what is an incredibly huge market.

While senior teams in the big cities battle to attract the best players from Ireland for a summer of money and a couple of games, the real future lies in the population already here, young GAA players whose main objective isn’t to pay a mortgage or drink the heavy purse of money handed over to them for a game on Sunday. But if that is to become a reality, these North American Gaels need to know that when they’re older they won’t be wasting their time in competitions where in-fighting and dollar-generated egos bring a fog down on the memories they’ll make this weekend.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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