‘Overcoming the fear of change is a huge challenge’

In a new weekly series, we will publish extracts from Irish sports books every Friday. We kick off with a chapter from GAAconomics written by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Moynihan
‘Overcoming the fear of change is a huge challenge’
PRIMED FOR BATTLE: The Tipperary and Kilkenny teams parade behind the Artane Band ahead of the 2014 All-Ireland SHC final at Croke Park. Dessie Farrell believes the GAA has to be more confident in itself. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

- In a new weekly series, we will publish extracts from Irish sports books every Friday.

We kick off with a chapter from GAAconomics written by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Moynihan

I

The GPA make some pertinent points about professionalism and amateurism, but not maybe in the way you’re expecting. They way they put it, to have the latter survive, you’ve got to work hard at the former.

“We need a big picture approach because we need to run our games in a professional manner,” says Dessie Farrell.

“Just because we don’t have a professional elite doesn’t mean we can’t do our business in a professional way.”

So you’re saying to keep the game amateur everyone needs to work as professionally as possible?

“Absolutely.”

The thing is, the GPA point out — correctly — that there’s more to professionalism in sport than the most obvious examples across the Irish Sea.

II

A recurring theme when interviewing people for this book was the need to look beyond Britain when it comes to economic models for the GAA’s development. The player organisation was no exception.

The GPA has a seat on the board of EU Athletes, a federation of European player bodies — they’re also trying to set up a world organisation of player bodies — and as a result they can see the reality of pro sport.

“I was at a meeting there and you find a lot of them have the same problems,” says Farrell. “Trying to engage with governing bodies on issues, to influence change — moving things in the right direction, generally.

“Around 10 years ago the Australian players association were instrumental in convincing the soccer governing body to restructure how competitions were organised. They didn’t go far enough, and some of the decisions made then have come back to haunt them in terms of the location of franchises.

“However, it’s generally seen as a great success, and that dynamic is going to be really important.

“But generally, it’s very interesting — there are plenty of studies which show that plenty of pro sportsmen who hover above the poverty line.

“FIFPRO has published what they’ve called the Black Book about football in eastern Europe, outlining corruption, match-fixing and violence against players. A game in absolute crisis.

“There are probably historical issues in some of those countries, but there are also other problems — such as what we’ve seen here in Ireland in terms of kids trying to make a go of professional sport and being left in a heap when they don’t make it.”

Farrell can show a potential meeting point for the GAA and EU Athletes: “We feel there’s a reluctance to look at the wider picture because of this fear of going down the professional route.

“But if the GAA they thought about it, we had an EU Athletes conference two years ago and we brought the delegates to an All-Ireland final.

"They were amazed because when they go home they’re fighting their home associations for salaries for their players, clubs are going bust — and the professionalism is sucking the money out of the sport.

“I think with a bit of confidence, a bit of tweaking, we could have something really special here. At one of these conferences I made a presentation on Gaelic games, and hurling in particular, and the Japanese baseball delegation went crazy for it — they were mad for more information on it.”

“We did it with music, we exported it all over the world,” adds Sean Potts.

“The Chieftains went from a group of young musicians playing in pubs to Carnegie Hall within 10 years, and I know it’s different, it’s a cultural, artistic thing, but we’ve never done that with Gaelic games, and there’s an important cultural component there too.”

That reluctance to drive an overseas connection — apart from the Compromise Rules maybe, of which more anon — is linked by Farrell to historical factors: “One of the bugbears we have is that as an Association we’ve been somewhat reluctant to develop an international dimension. I suppose historically we weren’t a global power and we didn’t conquer countries and impose our games on them.

“But we were able to export Riverdance all over the world. When we were working in the States we were trying to set up some opportunities there, and the Yanks love their sport on TV. You see an Aussie Rules highlights package on ESPN, and that results in revenue going back to the game in Australia.

“When you see that you say to yourself ‘why do you need to head to a pub at eight in the morning to watch an All-Ireland final?’ It’s ridiculous. Why don’t we have a weekly highlights pack age on ESPN? In terms of trying to broaden our horizons and infiltrate other markets, we’re missing a trick there.”

Potts chimes in with an example of a chance lost: “I was disappointed when I travelled to San Francisco with the 2011 Hurling All-Stars as I felt it was something of a missed opportunity for an overseas trip.

“I suppose it reflects that the player still isn’t central enough in terms of marketing the games. I find that frustrating. There should be a big marketing push to promote the Allstars exhibition games in the States, a marketing blitz to generate publicity and attract an attendance.”

“You’re dealing with the culture, a throwback to the ‘this is unique and very special’, and if there’s change you’ve to avoid the professional route...” says Farrell.

“I think the GAA has to be more confident in itself, that we can embrace change, positive change, and bring on board what’s best from other areas. All of that isn’t going to impact on the bottom line — keeping the games amateur. If you look at it, people had a warped view of professional sports, either American sports or the Premiership, with vast wages that were threatening the existence of the sport.”

III

GAAconomics, written by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Moynihan
GAAconomics, written by Irish Examiner journalist Michael Moynihan

Professionalism exists in the GAA, of course. Farrell points to the necessity for top-quality administrators, for instance, and the necessity to cast a wide net to recruit same.

“Part of what’s needed there is a greater business mentality on the part of the GAA, even at county board level, paying more administrators to deal with the minutia of day-to-day operation so the commercial directors can look at the big picture.”

“We’ve to be careful not to go the same way,” adds Potts. “Your core activity is your core activity and you can’t get sidetracked into fire-fighting on individual issues rather than, say, working on a blueprint for a new championship.

“You only have a certain amount of resources and I think in fairness the GAA, to a certain extent, it spreads itself too thinly in that regard.”

You can’t just rely on volunteers. Farrell wants aggressive recruitment of top quality staff by the GAA: “The quality of professionals attracted to full-time administrative positions within the GAA needs to be looked at, particularly at county board level. I think there’s a move to have that happen but I think the experience in certain areas in that regard left something to be desired.”

“They’re important for the future success of the Association, to foster innovative thinking at county board level,” says Potts. “Overcoming the fear of change is a huge challenge. Just because we are voluntary and amateur should not be a hindrance to professional development and ambition. There are many not for profit organisations in Ireland, in the arts for example, who combine both strands very effectively.

“Look at clubs. They have their own problems, getting people in to do voluntary work, but that’s true of all organisations, sporting, cultural, everything. The difference is that the GAA thinks it’s unique with that voluntary dynamic.”

The importance of the voluntary sector within the GAA can’t be overstated, however. Farrell points out the political context in which GAA decisions are taken.

“One (potential) conflict would be the conflict of the professional and the voluntary. That can be a barrier to driving things on, because I know a lot of decisions taken within the GAA are taken on the basis of ‘how will this play out among the grassroots’.

“And to be honest, the reality is that the grassroots, the silent majority of volunteers, are progressive.

“One of the reasons it’s important to embrace change is the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road and the millions taken out of the GAA coffers — that’s because of the narrow-minded conservatism, that ‘ok, we’ll allow games to be played there while Lansdowne Road is redeveloped’. If a more courageous decision had been made we’d be getting €5m or €6m a year from soccer and rugby games.

“And that’s just gone now. Gone.”

IV

There are plenty of examples of issues playing out with the grass roots in the GAA. Sean Potts nominates the ongoing struggles with restricting county training — which appeals to club members because it would free county players for club duty, and would presumably save money on training costs.

“There are calls to turn back the clock and restrict training at county level because somehow it is stretching the boundaries of amateur sport,” says Potts.

“Instead of finding a progressive solution, one that continues to enable players to train and prepare to the highest level some would rather impose restrictions in a conservative manner. And they won’t work.

“Yes, we need a closed season, yes, we need to restrict the number of competitions young players play in — but we need to do these things in a progressive manner and bring people along in the process. Complaining about the cost of preparing county teams is particularly annoying. I mean, where are the funds generated in the first place? And if they are not properly prepared, will we continue to attract crowds, sponsors, and broadcasters?”

Dessie Farrell points out an anomaly in the complaint: “The cost of preparing inter-county teams is expensive but that figure usually includes development squads, minors, and U21s. It’s usually couched as though it’s a problem created by senior inter-county competition. If you don’t spend the money and prepare them properly, what’s going to happen? Standards will drop, fellas will feck off and you’ll lose the best talent. That’d be the death knell.

“You need to put money into preparing players to reach the standards they reach. That’s what drives the success of the games. As for preparation, again, there’s this fear... fellas want to prepare well, they want to train hard.

“That’s a personal choice, yes, but when they make that choice they should be supported and helped in other important parts of their lives. But then you encounter the nervousness, ‘where’s this going to end up?’— you can’t change the Championship because you’ll be placing too many demands on players, look at the road we’re on...”

If it’s a road, then surely there’s a destination, though.

“People often ask that question, ‘where’ll this end up’, and I don’t have an answer,” admits Potts. “But what’s interesting is that the only answer people have is professionalism. You will have people writing for 30 years that professionalism is inevitable, just like they were writing it 20 years ago.”

“The other point is that there’s a difference now compared to 20 years ago,” adds Farrell. “Sport wasn’t all-encompassing then. When I was 10 years old you wouldn’t have played rugby — the opportunity just wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have known where to go to play the game.

“The commercial success of Australian Rules, how they generate so much money, is very interesting. Fair enough, there’s more competition in terms of TV but the way they’re making money off mobile content and so on, they’re miles ahead.

“It’s not enough for the GAA to say ‘we’re unique and we’re different to every other organisation’. We should all be clear about this — the top players aren’t paid but every other component of the model is the same as other sports organisations. There’s a professional administration tier, it’s very dependent on the commercial success of the organisation and a huge voluntary grassroots element — like professional soccer and so on.

“The model is more or less the same, but the GAA should be looking outside the country for best practice. How are they constructing TV deals in Australia for the AFL, for instance? What is the NFL doing, or the NCAA in America? What can we learn from them?

“There’s a reluctance to engage with or use what works well in other sports. That was reflected during the introduction of red and yellow cards into the GAA — ‘we’re taking that from soccer’, that kind of thing.”

The last word on the GPA, harbingers of professionalism in some eyes, belongs to Sean Potts: “Ironically, in the long term, we would see the GPA as a bulwark against professionalism. I suppose the potential for commercial runaway exists, the Kerry Packer-type situation. But the Player Development Programme, if properly funded, represents a real opportunity to safeguard the future of the GAA as a thriving, voluntary organisation.”

They’re inside the tent now, and they’re staying there. Potts says they’re looking at presenting a paper on restructuring the football championships. “If we hadn’t been recognised who’d care? But now we can do it independently but also as a driver of change. It mightn’t happen immediately but it should be able to stimulate proper debate on the subject.”

Stimulating debate? You can be sure of it.

  • GAAconomics: The Secret Life of Money in the GAA by Michael Moynihan, priced €16.99, widely available online from Easons.com, check with your local bookshop for stock.
  • It is published by gillbooks.ie — an Irish publisher which has been in operation since 1968 and which carries a wide range of books catering to the Irish market, from biography to cookbooks, history and children’s books, true crime, nature, and sport.

More in this section

Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Puzzles logo
IE-logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.