Brewing giants Guinness have been sponsors since 1995 and the current (five-year) deal is due to expire at the end of 2004.
Doubts about their continuing involvement have been sparked by growing reservations within the membership about the ethics of the link with a drinks company at a time of increasing concern about alcohol abuse amongst young people in particular.
And, Health Minister Micheál Martin is preparing legislation aimed at restricting marketing and sponsorship of sport by drinks companies.
The Guinness sponsorship dates from 1995 and, coinciding with a renaissance in the sport sparked by the breakthrough of Clare that year and Wexford twelve months later, attendances at championship games almost doubled in five years.
An imaginative advertising and poster campaign carried out by the company gave the game a massive profile, enhanced by a significant expansion in the number of live games shown on television. In 1994, a mere three were shown on RTE.
Research carried out by Amárach Consulting shows that the Guinness Hurling Championship consistently scores as the number one sponsorship among Irish consumers across various measures, including awareness and appeal tests.
By the end of this year Guinness will have invested over €25m in the sponsorship.
The GAA’s Director-General Liam Mulvihill has been a supporter of the sponsorship from the outset, crediting Guinness with a responsible approach.
“In terms of the restraints that have been placed, both in terms of the advertising of it and not involving any underage competitions, it has been done with great care and with regard to the general principles that we set down at the outset,’’ he says.
Outlining the GAA’s approach and acknowledging that underage drinking and the whole question of alcohol abuse was a major national problem, he added: “It’s an issue that is going to have to be faced up to by all people on this island and we will play our part in that, in terms of whatever is decided by the powers-that-be.’’
At executive level within the Association there is a ready acceptance that future sponsorship strategy will be guided by government policy to some degree. In the meantime, they await the report of the Task Force set up by President Sean Kelly (chaired by former Galway hurling captain Joe Connolly) before deciding on a course of action. Privately, they are encouraged by the results of a survey which indicated a 90% favourable response to the sponsorship.
The GAA and Guinness agree that it is somewhat disingenuous for critics to link the sponsorship with the growing problems of alcohol abuse. The company approach is that they have always acted responsibly in promoting ‘a culture of responsible drinking’, but they admit that the sponsorship has benefited the brand hugely.
Clive Brownlee, assistant managing director of Diageo Ireland (Guinness’ parent group) made this clear at last year’s launch, when he argued that it has also benefited the GAA.
“We came on board at a time when hurling was generally acknowledged to be in the doldrums,’’ he commented.