Is the current model we have of intercounty GAA sustainable?

Is the current model we have of intercounty GAA sustainable?

And so, the inter-county GAA season ends with the most traditional of finals in both codes.

Although hurling has not sustained the intensity of last year’s championship, the restructuring of Munster and Leinster into a round-robin has continued to work well.

Three slight criticisms remain: the irregular sequencing of games in provinces involving five teams; the possible yo-yo effect for the teams coming up from the Joe McDonagh; and whether it is a disadvantage to win the provincial final given the gap between it and the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Solutions to all the above can be found: the teams with the bye in Leinster and Munster could play each other at a neutral venue; give the winners of the Joe McDonagh time to adjust by mandating that all four of their provincial matches are at home; replace the All-Ireland hurling semis with an Australian-like play-off system.

If that play-off system was used this year, then the provincial champions Wexford and Limerick would have played each other with the winner going straight to the All-Ireland; the loser would play off against the winners of Tipp and Kilkenny.

That system would enhance the provincial championship by rewarding the winner with a second chance in the All-Ireland series. It also avoids the gathering view that coming second or third in the province allows you to build momentum as the winner lies idle.

The football championship has also attracted criticism given the uncompetitive nature of Leinster, Dublin’s dominance more generally and whether a second tier is needed.

Football’s difficulties with Dublin’s dominance are easily described but not so easily resolved: in a championship organised on inter-county basis, Dublin, given its population growth and economic strength, is, in effect, no longer a county. Indeed, according to the ESRI, Ireland is retreating to the Pale and on both counts Dublin, a bit like it current football team, is likely to get bigger and stronger in the next 20 years.

The GAA is sticking to a unitary view of Dublin that even our notoriously slow system of local government abandoned 25 years ago with the division of Dublin City Council, Fingal, South Dublin, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdowne county councils. And even after that subdivision of four, Dublin City Council’s population remains bigger than that combined of half the counties in Leinster (Longford, Carlow, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and Kilkenny).

Given that Dublin is Ireland’s hub, the GAA had, as part of its 2002 strategic review, to invest there. In fact, in pure participation rates, the GAA in Dublin still lags behind other counties. Nevertheless, the debate on the allegedly skewed nature of investment in Dublin’s coaching and schools’ system rages on.

As is often the case with the GAA, there is an underlying irony: the opprobrium that Croke Park officials now face for the successes (or excesses) of their Dublin strategy is nothing compared to the criticism they would face if they had not invested in Dublin.

The conundrum of Dublin’s current dominance was illustrated by the recent semi-finals. A packed house for Dublin v Mayo was followed by a disappointing 33,000 or so for Kerry v Tyrone.

Reasons for that low turnout range from Tyrone’s 10th championship match of the year to Kerry supporters’ tendency to view the semi-final as the overture and not the opera. In 1982, when the greatest team they ever had was going for five-in-a-row, the semi-final against Armagh drew a mere 17,000 spectators.

Another explanation? Maybe a feeling that, in that uniquely dismissive GAA phrase, “the pick” of the other semi-finalists would not beat Dublin.

The football semi-finals meant that there was little notice taken of the comments by the GPA’s CEO Paul Flynn that in their next deal with the GAA, which runs out later this year, they may look for a share of gate receipts.

Replacing the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals with elimination play-offs, and even dividing Dublin in two for the football championship, would not present as radical a change as that implied by the GPA’s recent demands.

The history of sports comparable to the GAA is that they go through four stages: first, the amateur phase where the emphasis is on mass recreational participation and community; second, a sham-amateurism phase where a minority (of players and coaches) emerges and the term “expenses” allows even officialdom to pretend that no one is being paid; third, a semi-professional stage which is often a last desperate, appeasing effort by the sports body to retain traditional clubs and allegiances; and, finally, an elite, professional code.

In countries from the US to Australia, the pattern is that at stage two, elite players tend to get organised and collectively bargain with the sports body for an increasing share of the sport’s revenue. The GAA has already had three collective bargaining agreements with the GPA. Under the current arrangement, the GPA receives 15% of the GAA’s commercial revenue.

What Paul Flynn is saying now is that the GPA wants more for its members. That is what players’ associations globally do and criticising the GPA for this merely diverts from a much more important issue – is the current model of intercounty GAA sustainable?

Last year, an ESRI report said GAA players spend up to 31 hours a week on their senior intercounty commitments. Can we reasonably expect them to give more without being remunerated? Last year, the total spend by county boards on intercounty teams breached €25m and is only increasing. Central Council figures from last year show that gate receipts from all competitions are at €29.6m and falling. Are we soon approaching a tipping point – a negative equity-like situation for the GAA - where the expenditure on the intercounty game will surpass the income made on attending it?

Moreover, although the GAA does extremely well getting well in accessing other commercial streams (sponsorship, media rights etc, 31% of revenues), gate receipts (at 46%) dominate. Last year, they fell by 14%.

Compensating for falling attendances by charging higher ticket prices is seen as a punitive tax by GAA fans. Increasing other commercial revenues is limited because the GAA has no meaningful international exposure. Contrast this to the IRFU which in July announced record-high revenues of €87.5m for the financial year, noting that the men’s international game accounted for 81% of all revenues.

Simply put, if the GPA are granted a share of the gate receipts, there will be less for the GAA’s Central Council to distribute to every other unit of the GAA. In all this, there seems to be an acceptance that the continued commercialisation of inter-county GAA is inevitable and that the enduring strength of the GAA, its communitarian spirit – epitomised this summer by Wexford GAA hosting the first Cúl Camp for children on the Autism Spectrum – must just get on with it.

That debate, and indeed the next GPA/GAA deal, is for the winter. In the meantime, we await the All-Irelands. Both are wrapped in GAA history. Dublin facing Kerry - the last football county to dream of five in a row; ended by Darby’s goal and McGee’s indefatigability. Lar Corbett’s electrifying hat-trick terminating Kilkenny’s bid for immortality in 2010.

Priceless moment from the GAA’s past but is the GAA’s future a place where everything has its price?

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