The Tralee Sports Complex was the hottest ticket in the country Saturday night. The Garvey’s Tralee Warriors were taking on basketball’s Super league leaders Templeogue in front of a raucous and partisan home support. Around 1,200 people packed the venue in a throwback to the great days of Irish basketball in the 80’s. The top of the table clash was all-ticket and sold out within a couple of days.
There wasn’t a vantage point spared; If not exactly hanging from the rafters, they were at least clinging to the balcony. You had the great and the good of sporting royalty in attendance with everybody from Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston, to former NBA professional and Irish basketball institution Kelvin Troy running the rule over the best that the sport has to offer in 2019.
With their usual MC unavailable for the night, I was asked to help out and do a little play-by-play. It wasn’t the toughest gig, with the packed crowd like a tinder box only waiting to explode for every made basket or big play.
There’s no doubt the celebrity status and pulling power of Kieran Donaghy was a huge factor in the resurgence of Tralee basketball. Without his resourcefulness and driving the project, it may never have gotten off the ground, but he alone was never going to sustain the kind of momentum the club have created in the town.
When the Tralee Tigers faded out of the Superleague after the ‘08/’09 season, the problem was less the unavailability of players and more of a lack of appetite from those unheralded souls who had been keeping the show afloat from the shadows for years previous.
The Tigers club of the time was being run by a skeleton crew of over-worked and under-appreciated volunteers, who eventually got fed up and burned out with all the thankless fundraising and behind the scenes grunt work.
You see the same thing in a lot of GAA clubs all over the country too. The largest burden of work can fall on to a few die-hards who eventually walk away from the club after a few years of being ridden too hard for too long.
We saw a similar story already this season with Swords Thunder who unfortunately had to pull the plug when their head coach and club founder fell ill. Without their key driver to do the lion’s share of the work, the club’s reserve of volunteers wasn’t deep enough to keep things going.
The basketball game itself was a brilliant spectacle on Saturday night. It had everything you’d want as a supporter. Two evenly matched team, both stacked with some outstanding domestic and foreign talent. The contest ebbed and flowed, and there were a plethora of big moments and highlight reel plays to keep everybody entertained.
While the game was undoubtedly captivating, what really stuck me after was the level of organisation and attention to detail that went into the whole evening.
The Tralee Warriors club have an executive committee of about 11 members, with a voluntary working team of about 25 to 30 people on game day. It’s an amazing operation that ticks just about every box.
Noel and Eamon mop the floor. Geraldine runs the social media. Ursula is the entertainment co-ordinator and blasts out Amhráin na bhFiann on the bagpipes before every home game. Pop is the venue officer. Ann runs the club shop and Antoinette oversees the half-time raffle. Hall of famer Jimmy Diggins is the team manager… and the list just keeps going and going.
The point is, nobody is given too heavy a load to carry and everybody gets on about their business in a harmonious way that allows the collective to flourish.
Last year, they all went down south to Waterville for an overnighter and enjoyed some free steaks and drinks as an acknowledgement of the appreciation the club had for the people keeping the wheels spinning behind the scenes.
There is so much that every sports club in the land, not just GAA cubs, can glean from the Warriors template of maximising the power of volunteerism.
In the GAA, the standard refrain about the AGM is that you don’t go, just for fear you get strong-armed into taking a job. The problem for too many clubs, is we get people to take on a role and we don’t provide enough help and support to ensure they don’t feel isolated or snowed under with their new position.
The Warriors model is about compartmentalising the various aspects of running the club from a committee level all the way down to the guys who put out the lights and chairs for home games. Everybody chips in.
I know the GAA continues to offer various courses targeting the upskilling of the various voluntary positions within the club, but the crucial part remains the number of foot soldiers you can muster.
I appreciate for those smaller rural clubs, finding enough bodies to simply fill the essential positions is an annual challenge in itself. But again, those in sports organisations with long-term success with volunteer attraction, production and retention will extoll the virtues of creating clearly defined role where people are working in unison to do their own small bit to contribute to running of the club.
When Tralee basketball returned to the glitz and glamour of the Irish Superleague, the longevity of the club was always going to be a worry in the post-Donaghy era. He was very much their ‘Jackie Moon’, doing everything outside of wrestling a grizzly bear at half time to entertain the paying customers.
But the club itself has grown into something living and breathing in the past three years. They have created their own sustainable structures that are sure to live on long into the future. Their model shows that it should be less about finding just a handful of the very best people and giving them a big job each. It makes far more sense to surround those people with an infrastructure of support so that the once onerous position is now shared, and the workload can be made much more manageable.
If you want to retain your volunteers you already have, the first step must be to get more.