‘A professional GAA: what would it look like and at what cost?’

It’s the third rail of the GAA, a subject so politically sensitive that players and officials seldom utter it by name - preferring the ‘P’ word. Surely it’s time to throw GAA professionalism on the table for debate, argues one former inter-county star

IN May 1977, a wealthy Australian businessman, Kerry Packer, announced the formation of World Series Cricket. At the time, the game of cricket was essentially amateur but hugely popular. Packer’s contention was that cricket was, thus, “the easiest sport in the world to take over, because nobody bothered to pay the players what they were worth”.

Packer simply cherry-picked a selection of players and went about setting up his own league to reflect the commercial realities of the game.

‘The Establishment’ in cricket reacted by trying to ban players. Packer countered in the High Court in London where he won a claim for restraint of trade. The players, for their part, reacted not so much with a rush but a stampede to join Packer’s new league. The new game was of far higher intensity and standard with no soft matches. While attendances were initially slow in this off-shoot game, Packer had the financial reserves to sustain it. When the clamour for settlement grew too loud, the establishment relented. By 1979, not only did Packer acquire tv rights, he also secured an exclusive ten-year promotion and marketing contract that he exploited to the full.

The legacy is that cricket players are now paid well for playing. Other innovations which can also be traced back to Packer and his venture include floodlit matches, coloured kit, white balls, fielding circles, helmets, drop-in pitches and motorised drinks carts. Packer’s TV network also revolutionised coverage of the sport, while his marketing modernised it.

In consideration of the Kerry Packer affair, it is interesting to consider that the elite players in the GAA are not contracted to the association. Therefore, they are not obligated to represent it. From a commercial point of view, any agent could take the top 20 players and bundle all of their marketing power through him for the benefit of his corporate client base without breaking any ties between these players and the GAA. In one swoop, the GAA would lose its chief marketing commodity. A breakaway league would also not be beyond the bounds of possibility.

Anyone who has ever tried to explain the concept of the amateur GAA model to a foreigner will be familiar with the confusion you are met with.

“You mean you guys don’t get paid?” We explain the ideals of the GAA and the fact that it’s all for the love of the games. We delight in our unique form of madness.

“Why don’t you guys go professional?”

We tell them it’s not sustainable.

“But the quality of athlete seems so high?”

We admit that many of these players are now either students, teachers or have given up work entirely.

“But where is the money going from those attendances?”

We struggle a bit with that one. Still, we insist the games are entirely amateur.

In an ideal world, we would all love to preserve the romantic amateur notion of the GAA. The reality is that this ideal has been eroded. The model is broken. The game is already elitist. The GAA need to get out in front of the problem. And fast.

Some idealists can even get cross at the very mention of professionalism in the GAA. They’re not interested in even considering the argument. That’s not helpful. Discussion and debate lead to progress. We should not be afraid to debate the concept of professionalism in the GAA, or at least play devils advocate and see what might drop out of the conversation.

THE WHY

The GAA was identified as operating to a broken model maybe 18 months ago. This idea has now gained traction as the issues are again raising their head. A quick run down of the commonly accepted crisis points.

At an administration level there is fixture congestion (or lack of games), conflicting seasons, incongruent county and club seasons, and payment of inter-county managers.

At an elite player welfare level, there is work-life balance issues, career neglect, unemployment, injuries, over-training and player burnout. At an amateur player level, there is the major undefined fixture issue and the variance on the spectrum of too short versus too long a season. At the corporate level there is the commercialisation of the sport, player endorsements and TV rights. And at the aesthetic level there is the sporadic negative tactical spectacle of inter-county football and the inevitable hammering of the weaker counties by the stronger counties. Everyone in the association has a cut but sure a few decent games at the back end of the inter county championship will quell any further debate. Sometimes the argument evolves beyond the ‘head in the sand’ towards a solution-based discussion - but professionalism is seen as a mutually exclusive element in the debate.

Initial solutions have centred on control measures, such as the winter training ban, but with little success. It is doubtful whether further restrictive solutions would work or would be sufficient in any case. After all, human behaviour, especially in the mind-set of inter-county players and managers, is geared towards being the best that it can be. On that basis, shortening the inter-county season will lead to a more intense focus. Capping the training sessions will lead to abuse of these rules. It’s akin to trying to hold back capitalism or stop the tide from coming in. Competitive human spirit will not be reigned in and will gravitate towards excellence, especially when the passion for the sports already so high.

More recently, revised models of competition have been presented for the games at inter-county level. Some of the weaker counties tend not to support these solutions which would see them go into a B grade. They want their opportunity to play at the highest level and we don’t want to relegate a Declan Browne or a Paul Barden to a secondary competition. In any case, revised models only seem to address the diverging standards of teams in isolation. The fixture crisis, the player welfare issue, career neglect and work/life balance issues are unlikely to be remedied in any such revised model.

So what is the answer? Well let’s explore all alternatives. Any complex situation needs thorough discussion, exploring all the options, even the ones previously seen as unpalatable.

REALITY CHECK

At elite level, the game is already professional in everything bar name. A devastating thought. Outliers such as the Kilkenny hurlers, the Mayo, Donegal, Kerry and Dublin footballers have excelled it to the point whereby others are struggling to catch up. The revenues being generated by the spectacle and the Croke Park infrastructure - which their spectacle has paid for - are enormous compared to our population. Yet, we all conform to the opinion that’s been handed down to us, that it’s not sustainable. Give us an argument based on ideals any day, but don’t insult our intelligence with the sustainability argument. Sometimes, the additional caveat will be thrown in that the games are not sustainable ‘in their current competition format’. This caveat gets closer to the issue.

The fear of pay-for-play in the GAA appears to be akin to the fear of God. If you know an inter-county player well enough, ask them if they would like to be paid for the sacrifices they make. They may side step and say that it’s not sustainable - best not to be associated with the dirty word. You live in a bubble as a player and don’t want to draw attention to yourself for the limited time you have at the top. But the closest confidantes of the majority will know their real preference.

The GPA was incepted and accepted, only in an environment whereby they had to calm fears and explicitly say that they are not trying to take the game professional. That’s ok then, we’ll maybe listen to them but they better not change their stance no matter how the situation changes. After all we have them on record.

At elite inter-county level, the game is indeed professional, in practice if not in name. Some clubs are tipping the scales at local level also. Can control measures really solve this contradiction? Is clinging to the amateur ideals more important than the aforementioned real world issues such as burnout and work/life balance? The cost benefit needs to at least be explored.

THE HOW

This part is trickier and even listening to options will, of course, cause graves to turn. Yes, the current competitive model is not financially stable but let’s look at the figures. Revenue for the GAA is received and accounted for through a number of entities and sets of accounts. The main sets of accounts are for Cumann Luthchleass Gael (CLG), Pairc an Chrocaigh Teoranta (PACT) and its subsidiary companies, Provincial Councils, individuals County Boards and clubs.

The total combined revenues from CLG and PACT alone per the 2014 accounts came to é94.4m. The accounts for provincial councils are less readily available but based on previous year accounts, one could estimate that a further é10m is generated here. This would mean an overall top line figure of c. é104.4m for GAA Inc. It would be entirely reasonable to assume that around é75m out of this é104.4m is derived from the inter-county games alone.

To give you some idea of relativity, consultations were sought with comparable populations in the form of the Irish Rugby Players Union (IRUPA) and the New Zealand Rugby Players Union (NZRPA). Its turns out that the revenue generated by professional rugby in both this country and in New Zealand is similar to what the GAA generates in this country. Those professional models operate off similar figures. The CEO of IRUPA, Omar Hassanein, explains that professional rugby in most Tier One rugby playing countries operate their wage models for their players with c. 30% allocated for their professional players on a collective bargaining basis.

Based on the GAA’s current turnover, this would equate to around é31m budget for wages for elite level GAA players. The CEO of the NZRPA, Rob Nichol, simply could not understand why the players were not being paid for their services.

Clearly, the issue then becomes the cost base in the form of the administration and the number of inter-county GAA players. Currently, there are around 1,500 players who can claim to be inter county level, but how many are actually operating at elite level? Simply put, there are too many players at inter-county level. This can be viewed as the same reason for the hold up in the club championships. The same reason for the hammerings of the weaker counties in the inter-county competitions and the same reason no one really tunes in until the meaningful games are being played in July and August.

Which brings us to the most unpalatable part, a review of the ideals surrounding the counties. Any progress on this issue has to revolve around the consolidation of the weaker counties.

Here’s a suggestion, rather than an answer, to open the argument in broad brush terms: One hypothetical model would be a revised structure with for example, 16 football teams and 9 hurling teams each with 25 players on their respective panels. A total of 625 players named for inclusion at the start of a round robin series of games. The football might have four groups of four and the hurling might have three groups of three. There would be one competition at the elite level for each sport in a Champion’s League-style tournament with home and away fixtures that whittle down to knockout stages. The elite players in this revised structure would not play with their clubs once they are called up to county level for that season and could not transfer between counties.

The club scene would then run in parallel and uninterrupted by inter-county competition. The main stumbling block is of course the merging of weaker counties as well as, for instance, the concentrated geography of the hurling strongholds. One article will not fully have an answer for all the outcomes but bear with the concept and the discussion can ensue.

If each elite player got a universal €40,000 each, the total wage bill would come to c. €25m. With a more streamlined administration and an increasing top line revenue, could significant resources still be put back into grass roots on top of proper support at elite level such as career support and transition into retirement? It might result in a greater impact than the é2.1m donation the GAA currently makes to the GPA for the existing enormous inter county player base.

By the way, many observers think the GPA should be doing more, that they should be extending their reach beyond the 1,500 or so inter-county players and into the club scene on this é2.1m budget. Wishful thinking.

Of course, there are holes in every model and they are sure to be identified here, but that would be a welcome start in itself. At least we would be talking about the issues and through dialogue, we might arrive at better ideas. What is the actual likelihood that the top line revenue figure could be grown in a revised semi-professional model? The current model certainly appears sub-optimal with a lot being left on the table. Sponsorship contracts between the GAA and corporate bodies are atypical because counties can then proceed with their own separate contracts. Dublin’s brand is not available centrally to Cumann Luthchleas Gael. The entire landscape is open to dysfunctional divergence which is not appealing to sponsors. Bernard Brogan could be marketing Kelloggs while Diarmuid Connolly could be marketing Nestle. The value to both companies is diluted.

What of attendances, a core revenue team for any sports team? Surely more competitive matches will lead to more meaningful games and higher standards. Consequent higher attendances would lead to greater revenue. What about the possibility of Kerry playing a meaningful match against a midland combination in a packed to the rafters Austin Stack Pairc? The ground might actually reach its 15,000 person capacity for a change. What about a different combination from the west actually putting it up to Dublin on a Friday night under lights in Croker? Bigger attendances, greater revenue, better atmosphere, and more money being spent in the towns and cities before the big games.

This upside could be allocated for further development of the grass roots and the amateur club scene in a transparent manner. Lessons could be learned from the actions and mistakes of the rugby model where the prestige was indeed taken away from the club scene but the game on the whole has flourished.

In this revised structure, the player from Louth would not have to go into the B competition. They will simply have to be good enough to reach a higher standard in a wider representative area. And yet, the general consensus is that any gerrymandering of boundaries will never occur. The tradition of the counties is alleged to be too rich, too important. While understandable, one could counter that the boundaries have already been eroded in the divergence in ability. The players from the weaker counties have no real chance of silverware and the best players in these weaker counties should not have to go into a B grade. What’s more, are these boundaries more important than the player welfare issue?

What of the other potential benefits? In a professional Gaelic football environment, one can be sure that the tactical side of both games will evolve. Teams would certainly innovate faster to overcome recent defensive styles of play in football. More sophisticated defensive strategies would probably emerge and we might witness an evolution. In a professional context, the GAA could get out in front of the player welfare problems. As in other sports, Professional Development Managers (PDMs) could be assigned to each team to ensure the person is developed as well as the athlete. Why aren’t these in place already? Balance could be restored into the players’ lives and their career options could be genuinely developed through transition-to-retirement programmes.

In a pay-for-play scenario, the elite players could be made to be bastions of social responsibility and mandated to undertake all the good charitable representative work that they are being asked to do and currently want to do but simply do not have the time to do.

The €40,000 per annum could provide the players with the means to support themselves through their playing careers and fulfil potential but more importantly, they could be trained and properly transitioned into sustainable careers on retirement.

In a semi-professional game, the fixture issue could be alleviated with no involvement of inter-county players at club level. The club scene will inevitably change. It is still where the professional player will start and finish but it could be made fun to play football or hurling at an amateur level again without any inter-county element destroying the fixture list.

In a semi-professional GAA environment, injuries could be properly managed. Recovery time could be more than just lip service and players could integrate properly back into the game after injury without having to squeeze their physio time into the 20 minutes before training. In a semi-professional GAA, the potential for burnout would be significantly diminished.

Let’s be clear. This article isn’t advocating semi-professionalism as the panacea and cure-all. It is, however, putting a case forward with one hypothetical exploration of a revised model. Fixing problems is never easy but drastic times require progressive thinking.

Of course, the model isn’t broken for everyone. In a model with the aforementioned turnover levels, one which is relatively unaffected by the two main cost drivers of player labour and debt, the scope for investment in the players should be fairly robust. The contention however is that all of the money is already being used and funnelled back to grass roots. However, if an Independent Business Review (IBR) on the GAA was carried out by one of the big four accountant firms, its is questionable how many of its many administrative layers would be retained. With central governance and individual county boards, what argument is there to be made for the existence of provincial councils in between, let alone divisional boards or vice versa? In all walks of life, we convince ourselves that our functions are indispensable. The reality is that life would go on without us in a heartbeat, perhaps even more efficiently.

We all accept that the intense devotion towards the GAA has made it a uniquely compelling and successful entity. However, the other thing we have to now accept is that the GAA model is broken. The former player, crippled in his thirties, to the club player sitting out the summer in frustration at lack of games are testament to that. We have to explore the possibility that the money being generated through this intense following could be sufficient to operate a revised semi-professional model at elite level. The success of the GAA was built upon brilliant ideals by brilliant people, but do we have to preserve all of these ideals at the cost of much more. As Oscar Wilde said, “Ideals can be dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better”.

Where is it written in stone that a new model would definitively destroy the ideals of the Association? A professional or semi-professional model is simply one solution that would focus on the elite players but with perhaps ancillary benefits spreading to the people who form the backbone of the GAA - the coaches, the parents, the partners, the loyal club men and women, the fans. Of course, there are other potential models and solutions. Could a cross section of these stakeholders gather in quarterly seminars at Croke Park, so that their voices could be heard and their ideas generated? An accurate reflection of opinion might be canvassed. Workable ideas and solutions might be forthcoming.

At the very least, these people all have a right to discuss and be informed of all the viable alternatives, rather than relying on the existing county board and Congress structure which is too far removed and too inaccessible to this backbone. The Establishment certainly does not have the answers at present. Nor do I, but can we at least open up the debate in a meaningful way?

Twitter: @ConorMcCarthy



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