Tommy Martin: Should the State subsidise elite sport or keep local clubs afloat?

In the past week, sport issued a cry for help
Tommy Martin: Should the State subsidise elite sport or keep local clubs afloat?

GAA director general Tom Ryan, left, and president John Horan arrive at Dáil Éireann last week. The Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 heard the GAA, IRFU and FAI lament combined losses of €100m in 2020 and express fears about their very survival without the return of paying spectators. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In the past week, sport issued a cry for help.

Ashen-faced top brass from the main sporting organisations prostrated themselves in front of government departments both here and in the UK. All painted a grim picture of what the absence of paying customers is doing to their financial health.

Both governments have promised funds to staunch the bleeding but the growing sense is of a looming cataclysm without the traditional major source of cashflow.

With the grave times that are in it, some might shrug their shoulders. The Guardian referred to sport executives getting the sense that Boris Johnson is ‘only half-listening’.

Here the government faces the wrath of publicans and restaurateurs, questions about the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and the challenge of juggling this crisis with the next one, Brexit.

Looking for a handout? Join the queue lads.

But sport shouldn’t be embarrassed about holding out the begging bowl. Sure, we are talking about mere games and pastimes, not life and death.

Thing is, we all now know exactly how important sport is.

Previously it was an intangible concept. Watching soccer on TV or playing golf or coaching the local GAA team — we always knew these things were important to us, but how could we know precisely how much?

Then there was the nagging feeling that we loved sport not wisely but too well.

Were the back pages truly the windows on our soul? Was our slavish devotion to sport preventing a calling to higher things? Could it be that there were more productive things in life than watching Gillette Soccer Saturday?

And then, one day, it was gone.

Suddenly, lockdown gave us carte blanche. Write the novel! Learn the tango! Bake the bread! Conversational Mandarin! Ulysses, where were we? Ah yes, still on page two.

Personally speaking, it only took one sad sourdough and a few months of Italia ‘90 reruns to make me feel the gaping hole in my existence.

No amount of Joe Wicks workouts could fill it. Baking and burpees could not hold a candle to the Ulster Championship and Monday night astro. Family board games are all well and good, but compared to a Champions League knockout night?

Brian Kerr told me he spent much of lockdown painting garden sheds. One day he noticed that his daughter’s one needed a touch-up and so, with nothing better to do, volunteered his services.

With his trademark attention to detail, Brian did such a good job that he became the go-to man in the wider Kerr family for outhouse decoration. If you wanted a shed painted, Brian was the guy.

The Oracle of Drimnagh, reduced to this. If justification for Project Restart were needed, this was surely it.

But then it came back. Cobbled together and out of whack with its normal rhythms, played in empty houses at strange times, often experienced through rickety streaming services — nonetheless, sport was back!

Back on the telly with the Premier League, the Champions League, the club championships and the PRO14. Back too were the rounds of golf, the training sessions at the local club, the five-a-sides, the lengths of the pool.

Into the bin with you, strong white flour! See you later Wicksy! Au revoir, Duolingo! If sport was opium for the masses, we hooked it to our veins. Life had meaning again.

And then the bedraggled suits marched into the Kildare Street poorhouse.

The Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 heard the GAA, IRFU and FAI lament combined losses of €100 million in 2020 and express fears about their very survival without the return of paying spectators.

For Irish rugby, the future of professionalism is at stake; the GAA cannot run its vast architecture of competitions and coaching structures on romantic hot air alone; and Covid-19 has been like dropping further napalm on the FAI’s financial bonfire.

These grave words nudged our minds back towards the abyss of lockdown. Such existential bleakness reminded us of life without sport, the great meaningful distraction that we missed so much.

Society is currently engaged in a great socialist experiment. Some have been financially unaffected by this crisis and must support those who are. Like with many other sectors, governments will face tough decisions.

Should the state subsidise the dream-weavers in elite sport or prioritise the grassroots? Already the 2020 GAA championships are only going ahead thanks to €19.5 million from the government. Should public money go on inter-county travel expenses or games development officers running kids camps?

Similarly with rugby. The professional game drives the sport in Ireland, but should the state top up the salaries of Leinster and Munster players or keep local clubs afloat? And how much more can be pumped into the FAI after the catastrophe of the Delaney era?

In the UK everyone is kicking the Premier League under the table. The government hopes that the oligarchs and hedge fund managers that own the top clubs might find it in their hearts to kick some largesse down to the lower levels, suggesting they don’t know much about oligarchs and hedge fund managers.

Sport is well down the list of those making their case right now, but it deserves to raise its voice. It is blue in the face telling government about the wide-ranging public health benefits it provides; these were never more important.

But as home-working sees more people distance themselves emotionally from corporate culture and begin to engage more closely with their family, their locality and their own well-being, sport takes its place among the things that fill that need for purpose. We know this from bitter lockdown experience.

That may involve volunteering at the local club, taking up an activity for the first time or nothing more than following a favourite team with childish vigour. Maybe you live for Fantasy League transfers or the golf on a Sunday night or the U14s chances of making the county final.

Don’t think for a minute it’s not important. And it’s all a hell of a lot easier than making sourdough bread, take it from me.

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