Jack Anderson: GAA’s next director general must put values over business

The future of TV sport, especially amongst the young, may not be Sky. It will be online, writes Jack Anderson.

Yesterday was supposed to be the closing date for applications for the GAA’s director general post.

Confusion as to whether the chief officer of Ireland’s largest voluntary and sporting body needed a business degree meant the deadline has been extended.

That acute embarrassment aside, what will be the priorities of Paraic Duffy’s successor?

Although no credible case for the professionalisation of inter-county GAA in its current format can be made, the pay for play issue will be on the new director general’s agenda.

Similarly, the current state of shamateurism that exists, which, to be blunt, is underwritten as much by GAA members’ hypocrisy as it is by under the table payments to managers, will have to be addressed.

As for other priorities, given that the GAA expressly wants someone with ‘commercial acumen’, let’s start there.

Centrally, the GAA has four key income streams.

Gate receipts are hugely important but attendances for the All-Ireland championships have been in decline since 2000.

For the next three years there will be an element of “wait and see” on this as the provincial round robins in hurling and super eights in football take their course.

Will more games in a condensed period boost attendances or will the inevitable dead rubbers deter spectators?

Sponsorship is another vital income stream.

Currently, the GAA hurling championship has three official sponsors. Can you name them?

Research suggests that official sponsorships often give poor value for sponsors — some sports prefer to partner with one backer.

The Irish sponsorship market is comparatively shallow but the GAA’s reach into Irish life is the deepest of all sports. The advice to the new director general is don’t underestimate it and don’t sell it short.

The third revenue stream relates to broadcasting rights.

A lot has been written about the Sky deal, its commercial value, and its impact on GAA values.

I am not a fan but not for the usual reasons.

In England, top-level cricket has been confined to Sky for the last decade or more. A recent survey showed that less than 2% of children in England now rate cricket as their favourite sport.

Sky and the behemoth that is Premier League football are mutually interdependent; other sports have become wholly dependent on Sky.

Greyhound racing in England is an example of a sport that is now basically a TV event. The last dog track in London closed in 2017.

The GAA needs exposure of its games, not graphics.

Ironically, the future of TV sport, especially amongst the young, may not be Sky. It will be online. Sports globally are investing heavily in social media and their own streaming channels. The GAA needs a two-prong approach here — a strong terrestrial TV presence and an innovative, independent social media plan.

The fourth income stream relates to Croke Park. Will its naming rights be sold? I think it’s inevitable. Sure, there would be an outcry but who refers to the world’s oldest ground to host rugby internationals as Lansdowne Road any more?

The last point on commercialisation is how the profits are distributed. Some counties benefit hugely from their population, profile, and personal patronage — others are not so fortunate. Will the GAA have to intervene centrally to maintain some semblance of competitive balance at inter-county level?

Commercial targets apart, lifelong participation, epitomised this week by images of the greatest Gaelic football manager of them all, Mick O’Dwyer, coaching an U14 team in his late 70s, must always be the GAA’s key performance indicator.

Dealing with the revelations of the oft-quoted ESRI report of 2013, indicating that GAA participation declined by half among 18- to 22-year-olds, must be dealt with. GAA participation countrywide is a complex issue. A ‘one county fits all’ approach will not work.

Rural depopulation is a factor in large parts of the GAA heartland. Clubs in many large urban centres, Belfast in particular, need assistance. The current success of Dublin’s football team should not be allowed overshadow the GAA’s weak presence in parts of the capital. New clubs may be needed in the suburban belt around Dublin.

Irregular club fixtures have also been blamed for the ESRI fall-off. Maddeningly, many GAA club players can be asked to play a round of their championship in each of the calendar year’s four seasons.

Current thinking about fixtures is based on ‘windows’ for county and club activity. Will there be zero tolerance by county boards for club windows broken by county managers? Unlikely.

A radical masters fixtures plan is needed. What about three windows — graded provincial club leagues to begin with; a condensed, tiered inter-county championships in the high summer; and club championships thereafter?

Unpredictable fixture scheduling also impacts at juvenile level. Soccer is well ahead of the GAA in this regard and as schoolboy leagues move to a summer season these differences will become more pronounced.

The phenomenon that is county development squads also needs to be looked at in the context of the participation drift. Does an amateur sport based on lifelong involvement in its games really need “academies”?

If counties are to have academies, why not have them for more and better-qualified coaches?

As for future priorities, three are noteworthy.

First, the one family model — integrating camogie and Ladies Gaelic football, and the fresh dynamic that would bring; will be on the new director general’s agenda.

Second, the nature of the Irish schools’ system, its ownership and those who teach and are taught in it is changing rapidly. Has the GAA a plan to adapt?

Third, the GAA is a large voluntary body that contributes hugely to Irish life. It should use that power not for its own narrow advantage but to lead the agenda on social issues.

For example, GAA players and the GPA have led the way in highlighting the blight of gambling addiction in Ireland. Why not support them by calling out the Government on its inexcusable delay in enacting gambling reform?

Whoever the new director general will be, he will be limited by his office which is not really executive in nature.

Policies which look good on paper in Croke Park may simply overburden volunteers on the ground.

The new director general’s relationship with the new president will also be key. If the incoming president, John Horan, is a ‘doer’ in the mould the likes of Nickey Brennan, Sean Kelly, and Liam O’Neill were, great; if not, it will be a struggle.

By all accounts, Horan is the former.

Finally, listening to a GAA debate on the excellent, if increasingly blokey, Off the Ball radio show, I heard a contributor say sniffily that “we don’t want a GAA where we all have to sweep out the dressing rooms.”

Ironically, the most professional team in world sport, the All Blacks, has exactly that policy. It is to teach players and staff humility and respect for a position they hold temporarily.

The next director general is the next chief custodian of the GAA and its values. I hope that the first thing he will do is forego the suit and tie meetings with commercial “partners” and have the humility to instead meet and listen to GAA members nationwide — the members of an association that is ours, uniquely ours.

  • Jack Anderson is an Adjunct Professor of Law at University of Limerick.

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