When Kilkenny and Tipperary meet tomorrow in Croke Park, it’s also a big day for the team sponsors. For this game, they’re a study in contrasts to some extent. Glanbia has been sponsoring Kilkenny for 20 years, while Teneo is in its first year with Tipperary.
Glanbia grew out of the local co-ops while Teneo is a global consultancy, but both arrangements tell you a lot about the modern GAA. Brian Phelan, Glanbia Nutritionals CEO, for instance, moves past the idea of sponsorship to a partnership.
“The whole idea basically is to promote the product, but I’ve always described the relationship as a partnership. There are common links — the co-op is the heritage of the PLC and there’s a farming structure with strong community links, and the GAA is rooted in the community as well. So from that perspective there were natural enough links.”
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Timing is another consideration.
“The other nice tie-up is that when Brian (Cody) came on board as manager and came out of the blocks in 1999, we had come through our own merger with Avonmore and Waterford Co-ops joining. The group was rebranded, with Glanbia key to that.
“Glan is clean in Irish, and bia food, so ‘clean food’ was the brand and we launched in spring 1999 — when Brian came on board as manager. It’s been a tremendous partnership, phenomenal.”
Clearly the most optimistic strategist couldn’t have anticipated the level of success 20 years ago, though.
“There’s no question about that. Particularly as it had been a pretty barren period coming up to 1998-9 for Kilkenny. The current thinking in Kilkenny that three years is a bit of a famine, but it was far longer back then.
“So both organisations were going on a journey together — ours was a newly merged company coming through the associated teething problems and launching out, just as Kilkenny were launching out with a new manager. We went through the first years of that partnership probably trying to define ourselves and to reach where we are today. The last decade’s been very strong for us.”
Teneo also have a strong local link, with the company chairman and CEO Declan Kelly, a longtime friend and club mate of current Tipp manager Liam Sheedy. Mick O’Keeffe, CEO of Teneo Ireland, fleshes out the background.
“It probably doesn’t fall into a neat bracket, as it’s rare enough for a consultancy to go in with a GAA team.
"First, standing back and taking a look at Tipperary in general, I’d put them alongside some other counties which aren’t university counties — by that I mean you don’t have a large-scale campus within the county which can give you all the associated benefits in terms of facilities, research, expertise and so on.
“There’s a sponsorship deal there between Teneo and Tipperary, but there’s also a partnership that will help with other fundraising initiatives as well as assistance with longer-term planning.
“That’s not retrofitting things either. Going in means looking at what things like best in class in team preparation looks like, and the fruits of that are being seen.
“There’s also a matter of looking at other skills — Declan’s contacts and connections, say, in terms of getting people with a passion for Tipperary together not just to help the teams and the managers now, but in looking at coaching development or infrastructural needs within the county and bringing their deep skills to the table.
“Declan’s worked tirelessly, with others, on top of an already busy schedule to add real value here for the betterment of Tipp GAA longer term.
“He already supported Tipperary in the past and has a passion for the GAA, but this was a step up in pace and involvement.
“You could say the Teneo connection has two sides to it — it’s short term when it comes to immediate sponsorship but long term when it comes to the development of Tipperary structurally and systematically.”
There are other short-term interactions. O’Keeffe’s point about Teneo helping players is echoed by Phelan in a different context:
“The link isn’t always there with a sponsor and its products, and whether those products apply to the team, but nutrition is a core part of our business and that’s now a big part of sports preparation.
"Avonmore products include flavoured protein drinks, for instance, which are part of team preparation. So while we provide financial support through sponsorship we also provide Avonmore products to the teams tooptimise their preparation.
“As part of that every week at training the players would have their products from Optimum Nutrition, which is part of Glanbia, so we’re the nutrition partner as well as the sponsor. So it all goes hand in glove. The players obviously want to perform at their best and our products are geared to help people at every stage on life’s journey.
Echoing Phelan, Mick O’Keeffe points out that a good relationship between administrators and sponsors can yield even more benefits for the former group.
“The realpolitik means immediate funding is always a top priority, but good administrators try to look long-term as well.
“Few county boards have the funds to pay big teams of people to sit around and stroke their beards and think about where they’re going as a county when there are far more pressing issues — debts, fixtures, pitches, all of that.
“Because of that people can get buried in the day-to-day, which is why bringing in a sponsor or a suite of sponsors can help. And part of that is to move past thinking about logos on jerseys — there may be a multinational in the region which isn’t remotely interested in advertising or brand recognition but which is interested in getting involved in the largest sporting and cultural organisation in the country.
“If counties think differently about things, in terms of corporate responsibility and strategic partners and so on, then there might be other partners who aren’t interested in pitchside signs and ads in the programme, or making video content and so on, but who’d be interested in getting involved to build community relationships enhance staff engagement or add value through technology or whatever.
“That’s not to downplay local sponsorship and involvement, there’s certainly room for that, but there are other sides to these relationships as well.”
Especially when that relationship is based on a genuine love of the game. “I’m originally from Limerick but I’m over 20 years in Kilkenny now,” says Phelan. “My daughters playing camogie here, the whole lot.
“It made last year’s win all the sweeter. I was at all the finals Limerick lost since ’73, so it was a great day. I wasn’t sure Kilkenny would be back there so soon, but as a sponsor I’m not complaining.”