JACK ANDERSON: Ryan must provide more than a steady hand

Tom Ryan was an excellent finance director of the GAA, guiding the Association through the post-Celtic Tiger recession but his ‘steady as she goes’ message was a little underwhelming, says Jack Anderson

The new Director General of the GAA, Tom Ryan, had his first outing in front of the media on Tuesday. It was a low-key event where the message was one of ‘judge me more by what I do; rather than what I say’.

Ryan, of course, needs to be given time. He was an excellent finance director of the GAA, guiding the Association through the post-Celtic Tiger recession.

And yet, in his first appearance, and nearly a month after confirmation of his appointment, Ryan’s ‘steady as she goes’ message was a little underwhelming.

Whatever about being radically different in his approach, there was nothing on Tuesday to suggest that Ryan will even be reasonably different from his predecessor.

For example, the ring-fencing of April for club fixtures clearly hasn’t worked and yet the response from Ryan was the now standard line that it is up to counties to ensure that priority is given to club players over the inter-county squad.

The move to keep April free for clubs was presented at Congress by those at the top and they have some responsibility to help push it through.

Many county boards are left in an invidious position of trying to satisfy both county managers who are preparing for championship in May (and sponsors who are underwriting the preparations) against the demands of club players for meaningful competitive games.

The ‘four windows’ approach to fixtures — intercounty pre-season competition and national leagues; followed by a club window; followed immediately by intercounty championship; and then a return to club — is out of sequence.

Rumblings, reluctant though they are, from the Club Players Association suggest that if there is no change by the end of 2018, some sort of club player revolt is likely and will provide Ryan with his first major test.

It is crystal clear that a totally fresh approach to GAA fixtures is needed and not a piecemeal one of a round-robin here or a Super-8 there.

A meaningful master fixtures list is needed and one that in principle caters for all players and ages.

Lack of regular fixtures is a problem at underage level in many counties and the attraction of rugby and soccer — and especially the latter as it moves to a summer schedule — is one which the GAA is losing out to in many areas.

Tom Ryan was also asked about a tiered championship for inter-county football and he again adopted a cautious approach, even more so than the current President John Horan.

To be blunt, the lack of a tiered championship in Gaelic football is looking increasingly odd.

Every county in Ireland has its club championships organised on a tiered basis and usually around a model of senior, intermediate and junior grades.

This year, inter-county hurling will have five different grades.

Inter-county football has none and remains largely based on a model that is now two centuries old and showing its age.

Take the Munster Football Championship for example, where 90% of titles have been won by either Kerry or Cork. No amount of yerra-like blarney from either county — annually talking up the threat from Tipperary or Clare — is likely to see a meaningful change in that win-percentage over the next few years.

In as much as Tom Ryan was definitive on anything, he appeared to confirm that the ‘Towards 2034’ report commissioned by the former
president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, would remain unpublished.

The report, which sought to predict what might be ahead for the GAA on its 150th anniversary, appears to have been a major disappointment.

It predicted the payment of allowances to inter-county players, but no thought seems to have been given to the legal ramifications of such a payment. Payment of allowances would lead to contract of employment-type legal issues in inter-county squads.

One consequence would be the end of the GAA’s current transfer system.

If a star forward in, for instance, Tom Ryan’s home county of Carlow was tempted to play for a neighbouring county because the allowance system there was slightly better, then there would be little that could be done to stop his free movement.

Moreover, the admission by a GAA committee that inter-county players might have to be paid allowances in the future immediately weakens Tom Ryan’s hand in any future collective bargaining agreement with the Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA).

If anything, Ryan should now be pushier with the GPA given that the GAA is, in effect, the dominant shareholder or investor in the GPA’s corporate activities.

One noteworthy feature of collective bargaining agreements in sport worldwide is that it demands commitments from players in terms of marketing ‘their’ game, in terms of availability for interviews and other promotional activities not just related to personal endorsements.

A second feature of the Towards 2034 report envisaged the replacement of provincial GAA councils with regional hubs. This drab HSE-like ‘reform’ would likely only lead to more bureaucracy.

Either get rid of the provincial councils or give them extra responsibility.

Mandating that such councils run province-wide leagues for club players during the height of the inter-county season might be one idea.

Another would be to get provincial councils to monitor and meet targets on participation rates in their area and especially in the key drop off bracket of 19-23-year-olds.

While the Towards 2034 report gathers dust, the current president John Horan has signalled his intention to carry out a full strategic review of the GAA. This is to be welcomed. There are so many issues that need to be considered.

How will the integration of Ladies Gaelic Football and the Camogie Association be dealt with?

How will the GAA deal with the global trend in sport away from competitive, club participation and into more social and recreational forms (as is facing sports such as athletics and swimming)?

Does the GAA need a flexible redistribution model of central resources to deal with the country’s population imbalance toward the Dublin area?

What exactly is the GAA’s social media and TV rights approach for the next decade or so?

Finally, Tom Ryan rightly said that commercial revenue raising is a reality for any modern sporting organisation.

He also said that on his watch he would like the GAA to “still be a by-word in Ireland for community and volunteerism”.

The contribution of GAA volunteers (and other sports volunteers in Ireland) to their communities is priceless. But given that we have a former finance director now in charge of the GAA, let’s try and translate it into figures.

The most recent research on the social value of sports volunteers came this week in the UK where it was estimated that each sports volunteer there produces over £16,032 worth of social value to communities throughout Britain, meaning that, in total, all sports volunteers produce £53 billion worth of social value to the UK.

Applying those figures to the GAA’s 500,000 plus membership and the social value contribution to Ireland of the GAA’s voluntary activities, in every community on the island, is enormous.

Spend it wisely, Tom.

Jack Anderson is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Limerick


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