Four weeks into the championship and there is no getting away from that underwhelming feeling. At this juncture last year, the average winning/losing margin in provincial football games was 8.5 points. This time around, it’s slightly better at 7.4 but the truth is the best game of the summer thus far came not in Ulster, as is usually the case, but in New York.
Away from the excitement-killing fields is a more fascinating battle that, for all the diplomacy and restraint shown by both parties, shows no signs of abating. On one side is the GPA, determined to improve the €2m funding they received from the GAA last year. On the other is the GAA hoping to basically get more bang for their buck.
Earlier this month, new GPA chairman Seamus Hickey gave a most insightful interview to Newstalk in which he made a number of revelations. One of his most interesting comments concerned taking a slice of the upcoming media rights pie. “Who’s to say that’s not on the table?” said Hickey before adding, “We’re renegotiating. What we’re getting now, regardless, is still tied to income from the GAA. It’s technically called a donation from the GAA at the moment. That’s not something I would agree with.
“What we negotiated in 2010, I wasn’t involved but we very much relied on (Hickey’s predecessor) Dónal Óg’s (Cusack) expertise and Dessie (Farrell) and those. What we got then was an acknowledgement that players are a key contributor to the generation of revenue within the GAA. That itself was an important principle to enshrine in the document.
“Now, we need to grow and we need to develop and what players commit to the game has increased significantly year-on-year. The landscape now is different to what it was in 2010. The landscape in 2010 was different to what it was in 2005.”
Hickey added: “We are entitled to a share of that (media rights). But then there has to be a mechanism where the GAA and ourselves get to share that in a fair and equitable manner but that requires negotiations.”
Finally, it seems the GPA are beginning to embrace what their founder Donal O’Neill told this newspaper when the original agreement was signed in January 2011: “The only really powerful player organisations in the world are those that have a percentage of commercial income. Those that don’t simply don’t count in the long term.”
The problem is across the table from the GPA is a formidable counterpart. It’s well-known GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail is playing hard ball with them. Like a lot of Ulster officials, he would have been sceptical about just how much the players’ body had moved on from when the idea of volunteerism was openly questioned by the GPA’s leaders. In his opening speech as Uachtarán 15 months ago, he declared “there should be no elites” in the GAA. On their website, the GPA refer to their membership as “elite amateur athletes”. Coincidental? We would suggest otherwise.
The last time Ó Fearghail spoke about negotiations with the GPA was on the All Stars hurling tour in Texas in December when he confirmed an interim agreement was in place, temporarily extending the five-year official recognition protocol.
“We have extended the deal for a number of months because we want to give both our associations just a little time to assess and discuss a little deeper. I personally didn’t like the idea that it would just be a deal where we looked at maybe budgetary issues and money issues. I think there is far more at stake here in what we do, and what’s our strategy and what we are about. I think there is a lot more discussion needed in that we are all more comfortable in knowing what our roles and how we all serve the Association. We are going to do all that. There is no friction and difficulty whatsoever, just a matter of being clear with each other.”
Five months on, though, and there is still no sign of a new document being inked. Whether it’s a concerted effort or not, the GPA now has a more agreeable “front of house”.
Hickey is as affable as he is intelligent. Secretary, Dublin footballer Paul Flynn, is similar, as is Waterford hurler Noel Connors, a member of the national executive.
Along with president Dermot Earley, they present quite the charm offensive. At the same time, there are reports the GPA’s opening gambit is ambitious.
The mere mention of testimonials for retiring players would send shivers down the backs of many county officials. Hickey makes no bones that the GPA is “heavily dependent” on the money they receive from the GAA. With the Government grants scheme having expired and the GPA’s hopes of improving their funding mechanism with the Department of Transport in the wind with the introduction of Shane Ross as minister, the players body find themselves caught in a perfect storm.
The GPA have already been floored by the GAA with a cold shoulder on the matter of their football championship proposals. For the sake of optics not least the welfare of their membership, they can’t be put to the mat so soon again.
The relevance of social media to the GAA rang loud and clear last Wednesday evening when Westmeath’s U21 hurlers carved their names into the history books.
As is the way in such circumstances, many more than those who were in Mullingar that fateful evening will claim to have been there.
In the past, such bluffers would have been easy to distinguish but information is so widely available now it’s easy to tell such fibs.
Cusack Park was indeed the place to be that evening but Twitter was a close second. Kilkenny’s late penalty precipitated a multitude of refreshes to learn if the Lake County’s hopes were to be dashed. Social media in such situations stir the senses just like radio, except the pauses in information are more pregnant, demanding more imagination of the user but heightening their sense of drama.
The last comparable occasion came in 2013 when there was no TV coverage of Dublin’s striking Leinster SHC semi-final replay win over Kilkenny (the common denominator, yes, but purely coincidental). Social media and radio came to the rescue in giving a live chronicle of that historic evening.
Operated largely in a volunteer capacity, the breadth of accounts dedicated to providing match updates, particularly from club matches, does the GAA an incredible service. There is no excuse not to be informed almost to the point of the instantaneous. Sure, nothing beats being there but there is a next best thing.
To all those hard-line Bruce Springsteen fans complaining about why cowboy hats were on sale outside Croke Park on Friday and Sunday, we may have the answer.
Ahead of the ill-fated Garth Brooks concerts in 2014, a brother of a friend of ours purchased quite a lot of the plastic kind of Western head attire in anticipation he would make a killing. Instead, he was left high and dry, only to come up with the idea that he could salvage some of his money back by selling them before big matches in Croke Park accompanied with county colours around the band.
That, though, has only gone so far. This past weekend, he recouped more of his investment refashioning the cowboy hats with stars and stripes bandanas.
Although The Boss has as much to do with a Stetson as Armagh with an appropriate game-plan, they were snapped up. There was purpose behind the reinvention.
In Thurles this Sunday, two counties that have remodelled the way hurling is played are charged with defibrillating the championship. There hasn’t been as much anticipation for a Munster SHC semi-final in quite some time yet Clare and Waterford play a brand so many want to see rooted out of the game. There is something almost deliciously silly about that but it sums up just how conflicted hurling is.
Would the pair operate as they do if they had the choice? Davy Fitzgerald and Derek McGrath have intimated they wouldn’t, but like our resourceful friend’s brother, when one avenue is blocked another must be found. It mightn’t always look right but the hat fits.
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