Forging a new way forward

Peter McKenna leads the way down one of the many corridors that wrap around Croke Park, turns what is almost a hidden corner and swipes his ID card to open a door that looks exactly like all the others.

Forging a new way forward

The entrance to the office occupied by the GAA’s commercial director and the man who runs Croke Park stadium bears no nameplate or any other visible sign to suggest that this is where deals worth millions of euro are prepared and parsed.

By saying nothing, that door says a lot.

The generation of finance may be vital to the lifeblood of the association but it is far from the raison d’etre for a body which sees itself as not so much a sporting organisation as the beating cultural heart for millions of people up and down the country for just short of 130 years.

McKenna prefers to describe it as a movement.

Yet the assuredness with which the GAA — an amateur and, for so long insular, body that still depends on the unquestioned adherence to volunteerism by its members for its very survival — has adapted to modern commercial realities has been nothing short of breathtaking in the last 15-20 years or so.

It’s a fascinating balancing act between traditional values centred on amateurism on the one hand and modern commercial realities and the potentially game-changing consequences such matters bring with them and one which poses complex challenges.

Every other major field sport has seen its cherished stance against ‘pay-for-play’ swallowed up by economics. It starts with money slipping in through the cracks and ends with a torrent that breaks down the dam that is amateurism. Soccer, tennis and cricket all went through it and, most recently, rugby union.

That was back in 1995 when the IRB finally accepted the genie had long since escaped the bottle and the preceding years, with their tales of illicit payments to players and coaches and mushrooming TV and sponsorship deals, sound not too dissimilar in a GAA context today.

Rugby’s volte-face was examined at the time by a handful of academics who proposed various theories on the hows and wherefores. The common currency was money and the role it played in changing what some termed the “dominant logic” of clubs and governing bodies, but McKenna sees it differently.

“What revenue does is it gives you independence. The GAA is unique in that it is a movement. There are many organisations that work as organisations. We work very much as a movement where the centre of power and the centre of decision-making can change depending on what the issue is on the table.

“The club structure and how they can influence motions at Congress and how votes go all enhances the volunteer and that is massively important but government funding has collapsed in recent years and we would be struggling if we just depended on that so it is very important that an organisation is self-funded.”

McKenna stresses the point more than once that 86% of monies raised by the GAA is reinvested back into the system and that it is this virtuous cycle that has allowed the redevelopment of Croke Park and multi-millions more invested in bricks and mortar throughout the 32 counties. All of it is done on the back of a succession of strategic plans designed to steer the association forward. Yet, in many ways, the waters ahead are uncharted.

Its very existence as an amateur sporting body is an anachronism all in itself in the modern climate and yet that may actually work in its favour, according to Rob Hartnett chief executive for Sport for Business as well as a GAA member and passionate Dublin supporter.

“You’re right that there’s no roadmap because no other organisation has done what they are doing in the modern commercial era but that means there is no baggage there and no-one directing them down a path they don’t want to follow. The fact is that the GAA is a unique organisation. It would be very hard to come up with a design for the GAA as it is now from scratch.

“Who knows why it works? It just does. It’s like, why does an airplane fly? Everything you know tells you it shouldn’t, but it does. It has transformed itself from an organisation with a very humble, and even hostile, commercial stance to one that is a huge player now. It continually seems to make the right moves. Other sporting organisations look at the GAA and are very envious of what they have done.”

When Hartnett attended the reopening of the GAA Museum by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, it struck him how many blue-chip companies the Uachtarán Liam O’Neill name-checked in his speech. Both he and McKenna stress the significance of the recent agreement which saw Liberty Insurance climb on board as a sponsor of both the hurling and camogie championships.

Such a deal, combining male and female sports, may not seem that big a deal but it is groundbreaking in this part of the world and perhaps even globally. So, the GAA is changing the game but it has also reacted to change in a far more assured manner than might commonly be thought.

Issues such as Rules 21 and 42, the opening of Croke Park and the cold war that was ultimately settled with the GPA may have been played out in public for what seemed like prolonged periods of time but all were divisive issues which were ultimately dealt with and allowed the GAA to preserve its cultural heart.

Now, the greatest challenge lies ahead.

Relations with those who play inter-county hurling and football may have normalised since official recognition and annual funding was bestowed on the GPA but the man who established the players’ group back in 1999 served warning of what may come to pass shortly after vacating his role as commercial director a few years ago.

Donal O’Neill’s prediction, offered to John Fogarty who is now this newspaper’s GAA correspondent, was simple: if the GPA wouldn’t guide the GAA towards professionalism then it would fall to a team to do it and, in Dublin, there is a team that is pushing the boat out like none before them.

There is nothing to suggest that the Dublin footballers are steering a deliberate path towards pay-for-play and yet every commercial deal between a Louis Copeland or ROS Nutrition and their panel of players, through the Legacy sports management company set up by Bernard and James Brogan, changes the landscape.

Dublin may be the only team testing the boundaries to that extreme but that in itself is an issue when they are supposed to exist, in theory, in the same universe as a county such as Leitrim with its tiny population and associated limitations and it is tempting to wonder what the GAA scene will look like in 10 or 20 years’ time.

McKenna, for one, is confident that current principles will still hold true.

“I spent half my career in big business which is driven by weekly and monthly reports, quarterly presentations and where the numbers are all that matter. The decision-making process in companies like that can be clumsy and awkward and oftentimes driven on the wrong basis.

“The drive for quarterlies is an American institution and is not always the best way of running a business. The GAA, philosophically, is far closer to the Japanese model of investing in the future and the future is generations. So, where will we be in 40 years’ time? That transcends anyone’s normal career path.

“It is that longer-term vision which knocks off the sharpness from the need to be commercial but also focuses people on looking forward. So, you can look at Leitrim and Dublin but if you look at these things on a 40-year cycle it becomes a very different picture.”

By then, McKenna and other GAA officials would envisage an association that remains entrenched as a market leader — in the commercial and sporting sense — here in Ireland but one that has also built a far greater profile on foreign shores through the diaspora, whether that be in Boston or Beijing.

Whether the movement, as McKenna calls it, continues to espouse such unblurred amateur ideals by then remains to be seen but both he and Hartnett claim confidence in the GAA’s ability to sit atop the fence with one foot planted in the world of commerce and cash and the other rooted to their amateur values.

“There are fights in the association, yes, and everyone has their own ideas but everyone keeps moving forward one step at a time and it does change incredibly well,” says Hartnett. “There is no question that there will be roadblocks ahead but we can’t even imagine where the GAA will be in five years or even 12 months time.”

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