Kerry and Dublin isn’t just a heavyweight duel on the pitch. It’s a muscular collision off it between two global mega-corporations partnering two GAA superpowers, albeit via wholly different business strategies.
American International Group (AIG) arrived in the Irish capital looking for a foothold. Kerry Group’s HQ in Tralee is a mile from Austin Stack Park. There might be value in All-Ireland success but neither boardroom will tremor on the back of what Con O’Callaghan or David Clifford does Sunday in Croke Park.
AIG paid a pretty dime to cosy alongside the surest thing in the GAA, Dublin. Kerry Group, meanwhile, may actually be the surest thing in Irish sport. Sponsorship of its beloved Kerry GAA is less a business decision than a mission statement.
Frank Hayes, the former head of corporate affairs at Kerry Group, and the man managing the relationship with Kerry GAA for 28 years, says he cannot conceive of any time in the future when the second largest company on the Irish stock market won’t be sponsoring the green and gold. That doesn’t sound like your pound-of-flesh type of sponsorship.
AIG and Kerry are the two most lucrative inter-county sponsorships in the GAA, partly because of raw financial muscle, but also because both deals are performance-incentivised and stray well beyond the confines of garden variety team sponsorship.
Industry omerta is not the sole reason an exact bottom- line is difficult to establish. Kerry’s support stretches across the spectrum in the county, from Bord na nÓg to Ladies Football and camogie to suits and boots and the after-match banquet for Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
One can safely venture that AIG and Kerry Group pump between €600,000-750,000 into the respective counties in a season that stretches to September 1.
Kerry Group’s is the daddy of inter-county agreements in the GAA, dating back to 1991, when Croke Park opened up jersey sponsorship for business.
Hayes had just been appointed to Kerry Group’s new Corporate Affairs department in Tralee when he met with his neighbour in Oakpark, Tony O’Keeffe, the county GAA secretary.
The affair continues.
Kerry Group didn’t blanch at writing a €1m cheque to underpin the funding effort for the GAA’s €8m Centre of Excellence at Currans. It was the sort of statement that has provided a comfort blanket for Kerry GAA through some ropey times on and off the field.
Remember, Denis Brosnan signed up in the midst of Kerry’s decade in the doldrums from 1987 to 1997. This year, Kerry will provide assistance across the spectrum to their GAA namesake to the tune of at least €750,000.
“It’s not the same figure every year because it depends on performance and success and the various elements of it. It’s very well constructed,” Frank Hayes says.
“There’s a basic element that covers the broad training expenses of all Kerry teams. Then there’s a performance aspect, which covers reaching the Munster final, the Super 8s, the All-Ireland semi-final and the final. Then, very purposefully and very importantly, there’s an element of it for a big contribution to the team holiday fund.
"There’s a slight difference there between winning an All-Ireland and appearing in the final.”
Hayes uses the word “understated” to describe Kerry Group’s ask of the GAA, and while they are very clear on their expectations, and demand the same loyalty they give the Pavillion (as Austin Stack Park, the GAA HQ is known), they don’t foist their suite of brands or products since they first measured up the word ‘Kerry’ on the gold band of the jersey in 1991.
In other words, they don’t tinker with that famous jersey.
“We have never used the sponsorship to market a brand like Denny – because it’s just Kerry. It’s not a case of trying to drive a commercial advantage. It’s never been contemplated.
“You want the GAA to continue to be as meaningful as it is for this county.
“Our board of directors over the years… I can honestly and sincerely say that there wasn’t any stage when the question of our financial support for Kerry was raised – or even discussed.
“Nor, however, is it a simple rollover. It’s a continuous situation.
"Tim (Murphy, the GAA chairman) and Peter (Keane) were sitting here last night, discussing plans for the week. Tim and I were in Dublin last Wednesday, finalising arrangements.
"The relationship embraces all aspects of the GAA, whether it’s the development of Austin Stack Park, the Centre of Excellence, or the Kerry teams, men’s and women’s.”
The annual financial contribution is “very, very significant”, Hayes says.
He produces the four-paragraph press release from a folder, with changes in the margins, that announced the first deal of its kind in the GAA 28 summers ago.
The basic at the time was circa £15,000. It would prove a unique and symbiotic relationship on many levels, not least that the county and the sponsor were one and the same.
I reported on Corn Uí Mhuirí college games at that time from the same ditches as Denis Brosnan, the then Kerry Group CEO, and a former student of St Brendan’s in Killarney.
After his successor Hugh Friel departed, Stan McCarthy assumed the reins in 2008. McCarthy was a doughty cornerback from Churchill and brother of Pat, Kerry’s All-Ireland-winning midfielder from 1975.
And on it goes. The new CEO, Edmund Scanlon is from Brosna, over the field from Kerry GAA chairman, Tim Murphy.
“The GAA is very much part of the DNA of Kerry Group,” Hayes explains. “There isn’t one conversation I would have at business level with my colleagues any day of the week where Kerry football doesn’t get mentioned. You can see how tight the whole thing is, and long may that continue.”
The Pavillion would concur. From the beginning, there was a shared understanding in Tralee of the centrality of the GAA in the county, the power and sacredness of the green and gold.
“At the start, one of our main issues was carefully and almost sympathetically placing a logo on that jersey. You had the green and gold, and then our blue block of a logo - so it wasn’t immediately apparent what we should do. We had to work with that for a while and we ended up inventing a special lettering for the ‘Group’ on the jersey.
"What appears in the logo is K E R R Y with a flashline underneath the Kerry and a diamond on the Y.
“But on the jersey, you have the five letters and we invented the lettering ‘GROUP’ to sit alongside. It only exists for that purpose.”
In the realm of fashion, Paul Galvin has taken the jersey and delivered a modern twist, one which doesn’t alienate the traditional perspective either. No Masters or Olympics is a wrap now unless a Kerry jersey is spotted in the gallery or stadium.
“There were no guidelines at that time,” Hayes recalls about those early days.
“We worked with Croke Park to see what was acceptable to both the GAA and ourselves in terms of taste and dimension. You were talking about a very proud history, the jersey was sacrosanct. We had to recognise the centrality of the GAA to Kerry people here and the diaspora all over the world. In terms of our own company’s reputation, this was seriously, seriously important stuff.”
As hand-in-glove as the relationship is painted, there are clearly occasions when Kerry Group must flex its considerable muscle, notably when other suitors start sniffing around for a piece of the action – especially when there are All-Ireland final opportunities abounding.
Hayes, originally a Tommy Larkins man from east Galway, refers to them as ‘Johnny Come Latelys’.
When the team might be struggling in the National League or whatever, you won’t have too many fellows knocking at the door, but the minute you’re in an All-Ireland, of course you will.
"And this happens in all sports. It’s ambush marketing but people, like the County Board, understand the boundaries. You don’t want any friction. Sometimes there will be approaches from other organisations and you have to manage those boundaries.
“Of course, we are very careful to ensure there is nothing that diminishes (the Kerry Group) reputation, but equally we’re keen that GAA standards and the spirit of community prevails. There are times you have discussions about the direction of certain things but there has never been a situation where our ethos and Kerry GAA ethos have grown apart.
“I don’t think we have ever actually perceived it as a business relationship. We don’t present it like that - nor would the County Board.
"They would talk about support, the level of engagement and an open door which is probably unparalleled within the GAA. We would never interfere in any management discussion or demand that players show up at events. We do not step inside the dressing room. But we’ve never felt that Kerry GAA was going the wrong way at any stage.”
With 25,000 employees, an annual turnover of €6.6bn, manufacturing facilities in 32 countries and commercial offices in 20-odd more, Kerry Group has been more than happy to provide its business and financial expertise to the GAA when sought. For more immediate distractions like hotels and banquets this weekend, it’s also happy to take most of that logistical load off those preparing for 3.30pm on Sunday.
“Traditionally, back in the 90s or noughties, you would try to find a location for the team banquet and a supporters’ event on the Sunday night.
“That became increasingly difficult in recent years in terms of a venue capable of hosting both events. So that’s no longer possible.
“We host a private official team banquet. It’s a private invitation only and it’s kept extremely tight to that. It’s there as a sanctuary for the players – win, lose or draw. Separate to that but adjacent as possible.
You organise a separate supporter event with a nominal admittance fee, where later in the night, the team are brought and introduced to the supporters. That’s at the D2 on Harcourt Street Sunday night.
All that’s left thereafter is tying up the loose ends for 2020. In fact, that’s done too – the current sponsorship agreement between the two Kerrys doesn’t run out until 2021.
“Maintaining the vibrancy or rural Ireland is so important to us,” Frank Hayes stresses.
“That’s part of the pride of it for us, knowing too this is, first and foremost, about the player - the people who play football and hurling in county Kerry at all grades and do it extremely well.
"Kerry has contested 10 All-Irelands since 1997 and won six. What is gratifying is that when they get to Croke Park, they invariably perform. There has to be a confidence there for Sunday - and there is.”