There is a curious notion doing the rounds. This notion imagines that the great challenge in making a success of the GAA’s new All-Ireland B Football Championship is one of marketing.
By this reading, the last couple of versions of an All-Ireland B championship failed because the games were not properly marketed.
It was a view expressed by Tom Ryan, the GAA’s Director General, in the aftermath of the Special Congress at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last weekend: “People want to make sure we promote the competition. I don’t actually remember what we said, or the GAA said, they were going to do to market the competition the first time. So I can’t be specific in terms of what we did or didn’t do. Probably what I remember is that it was a competition that started out quite well and petered out a bit. So we need to make sure that when this starts we hit the ground running.”
If we accept that the issue is one of marketing, then surely the decision to vote through the proposal should have been accompanied by a clear marketing plan. This plan might have included basic information as to — for example — when the key games in the competition would be played and what television station would broadcast them.
By the words of the people who have driven the introduction of what they call a ‘Tier Two’ championship, no such plan exists — no broadcaster is yet confirmed, no date for the finals is yet chosen. There is no sponsor for the competition either.
There is talk of ‘Tier Two’ All-Star awards and other trimmings that suggests that ‘Tier Two’ will be afforded much the same treatment as ‘Tier One’, just that the standard of football will be lower.
This does not hold water.
When it comes down to it, delegates at the GAA’s Special Congress voted for an All-Ireland B Football Championship without adequate information on how the supposed reasons for previous failure would be addressed. Why is that?
And why is it accepted that the difficulty here is one of ‘profile’?
There is no doubt that how a competition is profiled is important, but there are far bigger issues at play here than marketing.
It comes down to the purpose of the competition. How do you measure success? What precisely is the All-Ireland B Football Championship supposed to achieve?
Is it intended as a means to close the gap between the weakest teams and the strongest?
If that is the purpose of the B championship, it is certain to fail as a measure in itself. It is not even the case that the best of the B teams will play more games than those who reach the Super 8s. How do fewer games allow you get closer?
This is not to argue that there should be a Super 8s at ‘Tier Two’, it is to argue that the logic offered by the GAA is not sustainable.
The idea that this is a well-considered, strategic attempt to meet the needs of those who do not enjoy success, or who are not currently competitive at All-Ireland level is not sustainable either.
The introduction of a B championship is the latest move in a disorganised structural lurch in the dark.
This began with the creation of the Super 8s two years ago.
In the way of things, the introduction of the B Championship and the Super 8s is presented as a form of evolutionary change. This is change that is considered to be the only workable change within the GAA, given that revolution is deemed out of the question.
Either way, there is no sense that this is an ‘evolution’ which is directed towards a particular vision. No person in the GAA’s hierarchy has sketched out a vision of what they envisage the GAA should be, nor have they led a process that will set one out. There has been no debate on any such vision. And without a clear idea of what it wishes to be, the GAA continues to make decisions on the run, in a disconnected manner.
Without a wider programme of reform of funding, coaching and club development for individual counties, the B Championship will achieve nothing substantial, nothing that can transform competitiveness.
This is not a new point, but it remains an inescapable one.
Equally important is structural reform of the calendar.
The explanation as to why this was a decision that needed to be taken just a few weeks before the report of the Fixtures Review Committee is bizarre (to put it mildly).
This committee was set up in June to examine the fixtures calendar across the Association.
But since it has been set up, Central Council has decided to change the dates on which the All-Ireland club hurling and football finals are played, and now a new competition has been created.
Again, it may very well be that these decisions are the right ones to take, but taken in isolation — without a broader plan — they are piecemeal and risk being imagined as solutions in themselves rather than part of the significant overhaul that is so badly needed.
Earlier this year, the GAA President John Horan explained the thinking behind the timing: “The whole idea of pushing the Tier Two is to get an appreciation that Tier Two is accepted within the organisation. The last time we came in with a big fixture plan, Tier Two was in the middle of it and it just fell out the back door. It didn’t happen. You all know it yourselves: it’s the norm in hurling, it’s the norm in ladies football, it’s the norm in camogie to have tiers.
It always seemed to be a barrier in football. So we want to crack that barrier and that will actually give certainty to the fixture committee before they come back with their report that Tier Two has now been accepted within the organisation and they can fit it in with a structure.”
But this presumes that revised fixtures demand that there should be an All-Ireland B Football Championship. What if it is not at all necessary? Or what if it is actually an impediment to a revised fixtures schedule? Will it be abandoned immediately? Or will it instead now have to be added to the list of things that must be accommodated alongside everything else?
There is so much that is right about the GAA, so much to admire in the quality of the games and the people who play them and in what they mean to people across every county in Ireland.
This is most obvious in the manner in which the Association opens its door to children under the age of 12.
It is a badge of honour that the GAA’s facilities are unmatched across the country and that it plays a significant role for so many communities.
It is these things, more than anything else, that ensure the ongoing success of the organisation.
But there is no room for complacency. The British Empire was the biggest, most successful empire in history little more than 100 years ago.
As recently as the 1930s it was the most successful trading nation in the world, as well as being the most potent global power.
That day is now gone. The ongoing Brexit shambles in London is a daily reminder of just how badly things can go wrong.
Indeed, history is filled with lessons of institutions that have declined from positions where permanent prosperity appeared inevitable.
This is true for sports institutions as well as for every other.
More than anything else, the manner of policy-making within the GAA in recent years gives only limited room for optimism.
This is not just a matter of disagreeing with individual decisions — that will always happen and should always happen. Instead, it is about how decisions are taken.
Most immediately, it will be fascinating to read the report of the Fixtures Review Committee — and fascinating also to watch how decisions are made in its wake.