Who wins when we invest in sport?

A cynic, according to Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington, is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

In today’s world, it might be said that a price is put on everything that has any value. Hence, we measure how well society is doing by sets of figures, related to economic activity, employment, housing, hospital waiting lists, consumer spending, leisure spending, and on it goes.

But what of the activity to which a monetary figure can’t be attached?

This week, a groundbreaking report attempted to put a monetary value on the activity of a GAA club.

The Na Fianna club, on the northside of Dublin, is one of the largest in the country, with 3,000 members fielding 174 teams in all sports.

It endeavoured to monetise its activities for the local communities, including the suburbs of Glasnevin, Drumcondra, and Phibsboro.

Constantly, we hear of how the ethos of the GAA is unique to this country, and how much it means in all communities, whether they be rural or urban.

This was a shot at monetising that value. The exercise was explained in the report as follows: “It is second nature for us to think and talk about financial value.

"The same is not true for social value. We know certain things in life are far more important than money, but we often find it difficult to explain why this is so and we certainly struggle to value these things, which can lead to them being under-appreciated and not properly accounted for.

"This is where social-value studies, such as this one, come in. These studies do not pretend to provide the perfect answer to difficult questions.

"However, they do go some way to calculating, in a robust and transparent matter, the value of changes that are caused by activities, in this case the activities of a local GAA club.”

The study used internationally recognised methods to calculate inputs and outputs — both positive and negative — for the club. It found that for every euro invested, an equivalent €15 was generated.

In total, over a year, input into Na Fianna was €3.5m. Of this, only €800,000 was cash, while volunteer time was estimated at €2.4m.

Outputs range from the commercial success of ventures associated with the club to health, social, and community benefits. Negative outcomes, such as complaints about traffic or disruption, were also thrown into the mix.

Using accepted formulae, the study came up with a multiple of nearly 15:1 to calculate the social value of the club, to the community, at €50m.

Club chairman Cormac Ó Donnchú said last week that, initially, they were concerned the figure could be overstated:

So, we sent the report for verification to Social Value International, an independent body, who stood over it and assured the report’s findings.

The result should provide food for thought for the GAA, sports in general, and particularly the body politic.

We are often told, for instance, that the benefits from foreign direct investment flow throughout the community in which a company bases itself.

This is undoubtedly true and feeds into long-standing policy to provide a welcoming environment for big business. But is the same emphasis given to ensuring that sports at a local level generate serious value for a community, albeit value that is rarely monetised?

Sport has been elevated in the hierarchy of national policies since the country arrived at the top table of wealthy nations in the 1990s.

More money than ever before has been channelled towards the elite sportspeople who represent the country at international events. A particular emphasis has been placed on sports that might deliver medals.

Arguably, there is a trickle-down benefit from international success. But is that the correct approach to encouraging and funding sport for as many as possible?

Look at Britain. At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the country landed 67 medals. It was a phenomenal achievement, placing Britain above China in the medal table and was more medals than Britain won at the London games four years previously.

Each medal, however, cost around £4m, as £274m was doled out during the Olympic cycle.

Yet participation in sports in Britain was lower in 2016 than it had been at the previous, home-based games. Does the same distorted focus on the elite exist in this country?

Whatever about focusing on the elite, we certainly have a thing here about stadiums. In retrospect, can anybody say that the €100m spent on Páirc Uí Chaoimh was value for money, in sporting terms?

Did we really need another 40,000-capacity stadium, complete with bells and whistles, at a time when many clubs in Cork City alone are struggling to find playing pitches?

Remember the ‘Bertie Bowl’? In the cold light of post-recession Ireland, the farrago in 2002, around whether to build another 60,000-seater (80,000 in some estimates) stadium appears to have been a symptom of madness. Yet this was a major political issue at the time.

On resigning from office, in 2008, Bertie Ahern was asked whether he had any regrets.

The empire of sand that was the Celtic Tiger was beginning to crumble around his ears, yet the sports-mad Bertie lamented something else: “I still think we didn’t get a proper national infrastructure stadium. It’s an achievement I tried hard to do, but didn’t get.”

A more palatable regret might have been that he didn’t insist on sporting infrastructure to be part of every lucrative new housing development built in the preceding decade.

Ambition is important. Putting the best foot forward on the international stage is a worthy exercise. But wherefore priorities?

Sport for the masses has to be about more than sitting in front of a TV wrapped in the tricolour.

The study undertaken by Na Fianna illustrates the value of sport at grassroots level in the only currency that appears to register with the body politic.

Anybody leafing through the 120-page document couldn’t help but be astounded at the benefits.

Hopefully, it can act as exhibit A in future debate on investment in sport, when it comes to cost-benefit analysis.

Even the feel-good factor, so often cited when there is success on a national stage, is as important for those associated with local clubs as it is for a nation.

It’s about time that the powers-that-be faced up to the reality that when it comes to sport, all that glitters is far more than gold medals.

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