The CEO Series: Tom Ryan - ‘It’s a crisis that is so much deeper for the GAA than the financial’

Exactly two years into his role as GAA director general, Tom Ryan was faced with the monumentaltask of guiding the organisation through the coronavirus crisis.
The CEO Series: Tom Ryan - ‘It’s a crisis that is so much deeper for the GAA than the financial’
Tom Ryan: ‘When things are relaxed, a mass gathering will be very different to what we had previously.’

Exactly two years into his role as GAA director general, Tom Ryan was faced with the monumental task of guiding the organisation through the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking to John Fogarty, he discusses the experience and the next steps for the Association


Q: What was the moment you realised this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

A: We were part of a little network of stakeholders that would assemble once a week where we would get a briefing from the health authorities. When the schools closed on March 13, we were ready to shut things down. You’re

planning for the worst-case but in the back of your mind you’re anticipating that it’s not going to materialise.

So much of what we do is centred around kids and schools that it just wasn’t going to be sustainable for us to carry on. When the mass gatherings announcement was made too, that was it.

Before then, we knew there was something looming. It was in media reports for a couple of months and I’m not saying for a second you’re flippant about any of it but it felt like a story in another part of the world.

Q: Has anything in your professional experience been a help in dealing with this?

A: Not on the scale of this. When other problems arise in whatever sphere you’re working in, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it might be there are solutions.

You can mitigate and put in contingency plans but we cannot fix it or solve this underlying problem.

There is a lot of collective experience between our volunteers and staff that helps but we have never come across anything like this.

Q: The decisions to temporarily cut wages of GAA staff. Would they be among the most difficult decisions you have had to make as director general?

A: Ah yeah. Yeah. I haven’t much to add on that.

Q: The reaction of clubs to the crisis has been incredible. Is there one story of volunteerism or care for the community that stands out for you?

A: The main thing that stands out for me is not one story but how it started and grew. It was completely organic and that is what you would expect it to be given the organisation.

It wasn’t one section of the GAA saying: “We’re going to do this now.” It was a spontaneous, natural outpouring of goodwill and a desire to help.

Football and hurling makes a big difference to people day to day, week by week but it wasn’t just about the sport. What motivates a lot of them is being a positive influence in the community.

Independently of each other, they came to the same conclusion that this was something that they needed to get involved in.

There were about 30,000 people, about 80% of clubs helping on a regular basis and we knew that because of the vetting.

We had to actually catch up with the effort that was being put in by members. In many cases, they were helping people who would have no interest in the GAA; they were just helping people.

It was remarkable and I hope it is sustained. No different to yourself or myself, people get worn out.

Q: John Horan mentioned distance or virtual training via Zoom could be one of the positive stories to emerge from the crisis for the GAA in terms of the savings that could be made. Have you identified any more?

A: We have cut down pretty much anything that is discretionary. The timing of it was tough for us in that we earn our income during the summer whereas our costs are spread right throughout the year.

We had come through the six months of the cost cycle and zero of the income-earning cycle.

When the income isn’t there, you have to cut back on the costs as much as you can but you can’t repair that entire gap by cutting costs.

There is an element of diminishing returns in that we have to try and plan so as to be ready to go again at some point.

That means a core level of functionality around things like keeping the coaching network intact and what has got us to where we are.

Q: The Federation of Irish Sport has called for a government resilience fund. How does that tie in with the GAA’s plans to seek emergency funding?

A: There’s a clear sense of community in the Federation of Irish Sport and it has been heartening.

There has been a very collegiate approach with the other sports that have an international dimension and they’re sharing much of the experience and knowledge through their networks in terms of returning to play.

The efforts of the Federation, Sport Ireland and the Department of Sport have been very good in terms of keeping us abreast of what was coming down the tracks and ensuring our voice is heard as best as possible.

We haven’t really focused too much on the finance side of things. First of all, it’s a public health emergency and you could get the tone very wrong.

The finance needs of a sporting organisation are very important, especially from where I am sitting, but to this point they weren’t of primary concern to the nation or the Government or to ourselves, to be fair about it.

We haven’t really galvanised behind that yet but when we do, we will do it in tandem with the sports community.

Q: John Horan said there will be in excess of a €50 million loss in revenue to the GAA as a whole should no further games be played in 2020. Would you be able to give a more precise figure?

A: We will obviously cut back our costs accordingly as well. John was about right with the €50m figure. We’re at the stage now where the finances for the year aren’t retrievable. It’s still very important but you’re not going to bring that back.

There’s no point in us jeopardising other things. If you think about it, the biggest asset we would have is reputation.

We have been trying to do as best we can over the last while and avoiding mis-steps so we don’t put anyone at risk or damage the standing of any club or any member, or the organisation as a whole.

That is still as important because the financial argument is almost over this year. We have to make sure next year and the years after we’re not paying a price for this but you still wouldn’t put that ahead of the reputational stuff.

There are ways we could look to garner income — we just won’t do it. They don’t fit in with what we are or the situation that we’re in. It’s a crisis that is so much deeper for the GAA than the financial.

A good financial year is great but it doesn’t define what is a great year for the GAA.

This year will be a terrible financial year but maybe if we can get back up and running and do it in a safe way and in such a way that the organisation can grow it can be deemed an okay year for the GAA as it overcame adversity.

It might sound a little folksy but we all have to hope for something.

Q: Keeping the GAA pitches closed — how much of it was down to supervision and how much of it was down to insurance?

A: It has nothing to do with insurance. It’s not a matter of insurance, to be fair.

Q: The GAA have maintained that they want to restart action with club ahead of county. But is it safer for the county game to come back first bearing in mind the numbers involved?

A: I’ll be relying hugely on the work being done by our advisory group.

The one overarching factor at the moment is the medical advice. We’re very dependent on those people to come up with what we think is the best course of action. I’m going to defer to that group in what measures we can apply.

The reason we might have said previously that the club is the way to go is the scale and the number of people you would get back out and what a difference it would make to whatever number of houses up and down the country.

I do think that when that day comes, the GAA will assert itself again as the force it has always been. It’s worth aiming for that. But in terms of the practicalities and the health protocols and one game versus another, it’s not really my sphere.

Q: Your thoughts on the findings of the recent Club Players Association survey?

A: Any information that you can feed into your decision-making process is worthwhile.

I’m grateful that people care enough to put thought into things and I’m getting loads from people about alternative Championship structures, what grounds might be better used than others.

I think it shows the degree to which people care about the thing and the amount people have invested in it.

Q: Does the plan to push the inter-county championships to later in the year give you an opportunity to recoup some money if the restrictions on mass gatherings are lifted?

A: You would do it for any number of reasons such as the great players who have been idle these past few months and what it would mean to the country to see them playing.

In terms of salvaging finances for the year, our financial year ends in October so it’s in the balance, really.

If we had a fair wind and games were played in the inter-county championships the odds of there being a significant number of them before the end of October, I wouldn’t comment on that specifically but it wouldn’t be enough to make a big difference in the financial picture, really.

When things are relaxed, a mass gathering will be very different to what we had previously so there may well be limitations on capacities and what venues we can use. All of that would have a limiting factor on the revenues you could earn.

When we get back playing, it’ll be from a societal point of view, a players’ point of view, a safety point of view and if that presents us with a means to recover a little bit of the lost ground that would be good but we’re not going to be do anything financial first.

Q: How much could the GAA recoup from games via commercial revenue by going ahead behind closed doors or in front of restricted crowds?

A: It would depend on an awful lot of factors that I really can’t answer.

The number of games, for example. That is one avenue when we might recoup some revenue but if it’s not the right thing to do we won’t be doing just for recouping money. John said there wasn’t much appetite for behind closed doors and there isn’t.

If they make it work in other sports than great but you can’t reasonably make a distinction between people standing on the terrace and people on the field. If it’s not safe for you and I to go and watch it how can you tell the people who are playing it that it’s safe enough for them?

A GAA match at whatever level is about the people who are gathered to watch it as well. It’s not just an exercise in getting a result and completing a competition. If we got to the stage where we have to make hard decisions, maybe that changes but at the moment there is no momentum towards that.

Q: What of Special Congress that was scheduled for September to discuss the football championship proposals?

A: What we had envisaged for this summer and tier two has gone by the wayside at this stage.

Whatever happens this autumn it’ll be on a very different scale and format. The hope is we get back to what was year three of the experiment next year but it’s not straightforward.

We will have to take a decision on what 2021 will look like legally from a GAA point of view and what it’s status is now.

If we had latitude at all we would play the final rounds of the league for the chance of an orderly start of 2021 and you know who’s in what division.

If we can’t get it done, it’s going to be tricky for us. If we can box it off and ensure we don’t see the after-effects in the years ahead. Out of necessity, there will have to be compromises around lots of things, things we haven’t even thought of thus far.

I’d like to think we will see a degree of co-operation and pragmatism from everybody with an interest in the GAA.

What we thought was important three months ago mightn’t appear to be as vital.

Q: Are there unintended opportunities ahead? Like, could the GAA envisage a Championship game marking the centenary anniversary of Bloody Sunday?

A: Bloody Sunday is a good case in point. Whatever format it takes, we will commemorate Bloody Sunday and we will do a good job of it and it will be done respectfully and people will remember it.

In the general theme of the question, this is a dreadful set of circumstances for everybody to find themselves in but you have to kind of hope that not alone will we get out of it at the other end but we’ll be stronger having done so.

If we change some of our thinking as a result that mightn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I still wouldn’t characterise it as a win but there are things you can focus on and there are the things that give you a lift.

The main thing is we’re back out on sidelines and pitches. I fervently hope that day isn’t too far away.

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