The price of gold - The link between spend and success

Dublin and Mayo were the two biggest spending inter-county set ups last year, clocking up over €3m in bills between them. That’s a lot of rubs and grub, writes Tony Leen

The price of gold - The link between spend and success

Your starter for ten tickets. To give the squad every possible chance of competing, an inter-county management team must have a proper financial resource via:

a) Funds from the County Board

b) Funds from ‘Friends Of’ and supporter organisations

c) Funds from a well-heeled benefactor

d) All of the above

Everyone involved, however peripherally, in the race to September knows the answer. Dublin and Mayo were the two biggest spending inter-county set ups last year, clocking up over €3m in bills between them. That’s a lot of rubs and grub. The link between spend and success is difficult to dispute. Given Mayo’s nine-game marathon to Sunday’s All-Ireland final — including two replays in Dublin, they will presumably push spending past the €1.6m mark this year.

Someday, someone has to pick up the tab.

At the end of April, the Mayo squad got their pre-championship road-testing done at a four-day camp in Carton House. Between accommodation, pitch and gym rental and the feeding of 40-odd players and management (food’s the real cost killer), Mayo had little change out of €40,000. No sweat though.

The Mayo expatriate business community is as deep-pocketed as it is passionate about the county’s footballers, and a coterie of London friends wrote the cheque. Cáirde Mhaigh Eo, formed in 2011 around the time Mayo’s summers began stretching into autumn, can call on the likes of London limo firm owner Terry Gallagher, pub owner Tommy Maloney and a handful of successful builders for below-the-line financial support.

It ploughed over half a million euro into Mayo’s coffers in 2016. On the basis of what one Mayo player confirmed off the record recently — “we haven’t really wanted for anything”, they haven’t been backwards about coming forwards this season either.

It’s called Keeping Up with The Big Blue. Kerry went after the dollar, with former chairman Patrick O’Sullivan establishing a series of lucrative relationships with leading business figures in New York such as Maurice O’Regan and Donal O’Sullivan that yielded seven-figure support for the auld sod. They also have a platinum relationship with Kerry Group, which wrote a cheque for €1m to kick start the financing of the new €8m Centre of Excellence at Currans.

Every county is being forced to think outside the box but none can hope to match Dublin’s commercial footprint and capacity to deliver in corporate terms for a range of its blue-chip partners such as AIG, Aer Lingus, Subaru, and Lifestyle Sports. The eye-watering numbers, both financial and participatory, make Dublin a sure bet — from the €1.5m in development grants the county received last year, to the reported €800,000 a year AIG pay as principle sponsors.

Any company coming to the table with Dublin these days better arrive with more than just a cheque. The blue brand wants structure and strategy going forward nowadays.

“It’s a good portfolio of brands,” agrees Dublin’s commercial manager, Tomás Quinn, the former inside forward. “Obviously what the lads are doing on the pitch makes our job easier, but there’s a commitment too to be the best in class not only in terms of the companies we do business with, but how we do business.”

Such as? “Our partners are with Dublin GAA, not just the Dublin footballers. So, whether it’s Ballygowan as our official hydration partner, or Linwoods as the official health food provider, that goes for each of our six inter-county men’s teams from minor up. And that mandates buy-in from the respective team managers. We are looking to develop a business strategy. It’s not enough for someone to just write a cheque.”

Once it was. Quinn reckons it was during Pat Gilroy’s time in charge of the county’s footballers, that the Dublin County Board began to fully appreciate the financial behemoth they could unleash.

“In truth, Arnotts spoiled Dublin GAA. They wrote a cheque, and asked for next to nothing in return. But when a corporate giant like Vodafone, with a global infrastructure, came on board, there was a realisation very quickly that there needed to be a point of contact for them in the county board.”

Quinn doesn’t dispute the link between money and success, but insists one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. And as the salaried (and first) commercial manager of Dublin GAA, transparency in all their dealings is key, he says. “Team management are absolutely not involved in budgets. Dublin GAA signing a contract does not free up twenty grand for Jim Gavin. Our relationships are based on Dublin GAA as a whole — success is an add-on.”

Listen to the Irish Examiner All-Ireland Football final preview:

The Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice may look on enviously this weekend at the Dublin model but he also acknowledges that numbers alone won’t keep All-Irelands in the capital.

“It helps, for sure,” he said recently. “When you have the finance to put the things in place that you want to. How is the finance being spent? That’s a different debate. Is it being spent on managers, management teams, backroom gurus? Or is it being spent on things to help the players. There is plenty of money being spent in every county. I don’t accept the argument that (money skews everything in Dublin’s favour). Dublin have used their resources in a brilliant manner for the last 10 years and are reaping the rewards now.”

Yesterday, Dublin GAA hoovered up around €40,000 from their well-publicised All-Ireland preview breakfast in the capital. Corporate clients snapped up tables of ten at €2,500, happy to pay an extra grand on top for ten final tickets for Sunday (and 10 more for the ladies’ final in nine days’ time). Last Sunday, there was another pre-All-Ireland breakfast at the Derry training centre near Dungiven for the county’s minors, who are also preparing for an All-Ireland final Sunday.

The charge was £5.

To throw up their hands in submission would be easy, and for sure Dublin is an easy mark with its multi-layered resources.

The cost of the training weekend in Carton House a week out from the All-Ireland final is small potatoes to them, but it’s not like they invented the concept of cashing in on success. Nothing beats being there. Rugby clubs sell on their Six Nations and autumn international match tickets at inflated prices every year. It greases the wheels.

Carton House Hotel
Carton House Hotel

There was hardly a ripple last month when Galway GAA, with the help of its principal sponsor Pat McDonagh (Supermacs), filled the Loughrea Hotel and Spa for a €2,500 a table before the All-Ireland hurling final. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t chance charging extra for the ten tickets per table.

Kerry face Derry in Sunday’s All-Ireland minor football final, and despite a draining period of fund-raising for the county’s €8m Currans centre, the Kingdom’s annual golf classic goes ahead in Killarney today, albeit with a slight haircut at €700 for a team of four — with two free tickets for Sunday. Last year the charge was €1,000 per team and the two All-Ireland tickets were extra. Cloth cutting perhaps, but feeding the beast is paramount.

Kerry chairman Tim Murphy is the liaison officer to the footballers (in Mayo, it is the county treasurer, Kevin O’Toole), and rather than reeling in Fitzmaurice, he believes the county’s footballers “should be accommodated as much as possible to given them the best chance of success.”

It’s an admirable sentiment as long as things don’t get out of hand. And there’s plenty of cautionary tales in that regard. Modern-day inter-county preparation doesn’t come cheap — Kerry spent just a few euros shy of one million euros last year on their inter-county teams — but only since the upturn in the global economy has Kerry and other counties been able to turn their sights once towards George Washington.

“It was only when we were in US cities that we properly realised what the (Kerry GAA) brand means,” Kerry secretary Peter Twiss said last month. “(County boards) need to get the right people in place, people with business acumen, who can tap into that. The secretary doesn’t necessarily have that sort of business understanding.”

He agreed that Tim Murphy’s predecessor, Patrick ‘Tatler’ O’Sullivan, was one of a kind, but other counties are cottoning on. Last week, Meath GAA chair Conor Tormey confirmed that they would be following up a productive first foray on New York with further fund-raising expeditions across Europe in the future. John Breslin, who runs a huge scaffolding company in Manhattan made Meath legend Bernard Flynn’s eyes water when he wrote a cheque for quarter of a million dollars for the Royals at a soiree in honour of Sean Boylan in the Big Apple last May.

“It is one event that I was extremely proud to be part of, one that displays how times have changed within the GAA — and exposes the enormous pressure to keep funding teams at intercounty level,” Flynn wrote after in the Daily Mirror. “We’ve all seen the enormous costs involved. In many counties, it’s a damn ready to burst, such is the pressure. Inter-county teams who want to compete at the top level need to put in place the necessary — and costly — structures to have any chance of doing well.”

At a function in New York earlier this year one well-known county board official told his ballroom audience: “Spending the extra monies doesn’t guarantee All-Ireland success, but you’ve no chance without it.”

Dual counties like Dublin, Galway, Cork and to a lesser extent Tipperary all spent in excess of one million euros on their inter-county teams in 2016. Cork was under greater pressure than most, given the primacy of reducing the exposure on the €80 million Páirc ui Chaoimh redevelopment. 2017 hasn’t been inexpensive either, with the county’s hurlers going to the All-Ireland semi-final and Peadar Healy’s footballers being “one of the best resourced teams ever”, according to one individual familiar with the spend.

While that may be true, context is key. The difference between published county board figures and total available resources can be substantial. Cork’s spend, heretofore, has been strictly from county coffers whereas the likes of Dublin, Mayo and Kerry each have alternative funding streams. Clearly Cork’s lack of fund-raising activity outside the country — and the absence of a Cáirde Chorcaigh or its equivalent — has been a huge handicap.

However, the Irish Examiner understands that a limited company, with directors, has been set up and is active on behalf of the Cork senior footballers this year. It is due to spread its wings with a fundraising event and dinner in San Francisco this winter.

The funding company has a support structure which consists of a fund-raising committee in America as well as a spending and control committee here made up of finance professionals and former players. Sources say the company wants to work with and augment county board funding for the senior squad.

Cork under-achieved again on the field of play, but they’ve been desperately playing catch-up with top-table counties in terms of GPS input into their training, which accurately informs levels of conditioning, fatigue and general work-rate.

One player revealed to Examiner Sport: “We have been well short of the conditioning levels of a Dublin or a Mayo. In 2016, the Dublin middle eight were all capable of covering around 14km a game, whereas Cork had only two players hitting 10.5km.

“Neither Dublin or Mayo had any injuries going into last year’s final. Cork had 17 injuries in January last year. Our training model wasn’t resourced or sophisticated enough.”

The fund for Cork footballers was utilised this season to reduce the injury frequency with a second physio and watt bike for pitch-side rehab. It was also used to help establish the Fermoy training base, with the county board sharing the cost. Added one source: “Thereafter it was used to drive high performance (GPS monitoring, training weekends, equipment, advanced nutritional requirements, expertise, facilitating players training away from base with one-to-one attention and additional analysis.”

In their Rd 4 Qualifier defeat to Mayo after extra time in July, Cork now had six players running over 10km, three of them going to 12 and 13kms. Two of them did 17kms over the full game, including extra time. Cork had no injuries going into the game.

“Improving fitness and conditioning takes years. We know the football could have been better, but those were savage gains on one year,” said the Cork player. “None of this would have been possible with the expertise, equipment, and facilities that the Cork Senior Football fund provided.”

Whether that company — which hopes to embrace the senior hurlers going forward — continues with the dissolution of Healy’s management team is unknown, though it is assumed new football manager Ronan McCarthy would happily accept any extra financial help he can get as he bids to re-establish the Rebels as a football force.

Dublin is light years ahead of that. The Big Blue is already at the mountain top. The trick is staying there.

It’s a thriving business model powered by success and scale in that order, though interestingly AIG’s contractual obligations to Dublin GAA do not rise or fall on the basis of September success.

Unlike other counties, the agreement is not index-linked and tall tales of Jim Gavin’s inter county war-chests often sound better than the reality. Such is the supposed scale of Dublin’s resources — backroom team, ancillary staff, battalions of match-day cameras and analysts — that a lot of opponents are beaten before they leave the dressing room. Maybe that’s the idea.

Jim Gavin
Jim Gavin

Speaking to The Irish Times, Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien addressed that perception. “An awful lot of players, especially in Leinster, are beaten before they even play them. I certainly don’t buy this resources thing, the money, or facilities. I find it quite insulting. You have to credit Jim Gavin. Dublin are not affected by hype, they’re very grounded and work very hard. They’ve been a phenomenal advertisement for the game, and I think the GAA should be thankful they have them.”

“I saw Turlough detail his backroom team earlier this summer,” Tomás Quinn says, “and it was probably only two or three less than Dublin’s. There is Jim (Gavin), three selectors, and about 10 more in total, including medical personnel. I know that because I’m charged with ordering the match-day suits for the final.”

The scale of the Mayo backroom team elsewhere on these pages would suggest that, outside the white line at least, Stephen Rochford does not want for below the line assistance and expertise.

How much it all influences their respective ability to put the ball over the bar on Sunday at Croke Park is a moot point. There is the socialism question here, the broader issue of expenditure and income in the GAA against the need and desire of players to be their best and look their best in the finest match-day suits.

Your starter for ten is every serious county’s starter for ten. Option D.

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