The announcement over the weekend that Tom Ryan is the GAA’s new director-general caught quite a few people by surprise.

As the GAA’s head of finance, Ryan kept a pretty low profile, but a few years ago he spoke to this writer for GAAconomics: The Secret Life of Money in the GAA.

“When you take a number of factors into account, around 86% of the revenue that people pay at the turnstiles when they go to see a match is recycled within the association,” Ryan told me, as he showed his own passion for the games.

“My own interests are in Gaelic games and you could say that what I’m doing is a poor substitute for what I’d like to be doing, games-wise!

“I don’t expect people to slave over the numbers; I know what we do is the kind of thing that only gets headlines when it goes wrong, frankly. If it goes okay then nobody’s
interested, which is fine by me.”

As befits a man helming the GAA, he showed his awareness of the tensions in the
association.

Tension’s a good way to put it, because there are a lot of inherent contradictions. The whole thing is volunteer-led and community-based, and we’re not here to make a profit, but at the same time if you started work on a Monday morning thinking, ‘sure it doesn’t matter if we make a surplus or not’, you wouldn’t be around too long.

“If we were all laissez-faire, it wouldn’t work, because everything we’re trying to do needs resources, money.

“We have to find a balance between making a profit and keeping true to your ideals and what you’re there for.”

The Carlow man added: “If you interpret professionalism as running things properly, in the right way, then that’s the way everything has to be run, down to your own club, never mind the GAA as a whole.

“That’s a world away from professionalism, as many people understand the term, but it’s a good discipline for the GAA to have.

For instance, if you were interviewing people for a job in Croke Park, it’s nice if the successful candidate has an interest in the games — and most of them do — but you wouldn’t be doing the GAA a service if you awarded the job to the biggest hurling fan you interviewed, rather than the best-qualified accountant, for instance.

“The other side of that is that you can find yourself telling GAA people how to run things, and these are people whose spare time, whose family time, is being affected by their voluntary work, and you can sense there may be a little gap between Croke Park and the club man. It’s something I’d love to get rid of.”

‘We have to find a balance between making a profit and keeping true to your ideals’

In terms of finances, the GAA was “the most transparent place I’ve ever been. It has to be,

because it’s nobody’s money except the general membership. The other side of that, though, is that’s not what most people are interested in. The figures are published ad nauseam, but whether people trawl through them all, I don’t know. That’s not a reason not to publish them, and you’d hear at times about how other sports treat their figures, but that’s not something I think we should be doing, measuring ourselves against other sports.

“You’re good at what you do. You stand on your own merits and they are the best games in the world and so on. If you believe in what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing or saying.

“To be honest, it’s something that annoys me at times about Irish life in general — not just the GAA — this constant looking over the shoulder at what the English are saying about us, or what these other people are saying about us. Why should we care? Everything we bring in is accounted or. If we give a club €50, it’s down in black and white.”

Ryan also stressed the importance of match attendances.

“In marketing terms, it’s far easier to keep people than it is to win them back. When you think of the couple of million attendances at games over the course of the year, I don’t know if we can tell exactly whether that’s a smaller number of people going to more matches; that means if you lose a few people it can have an exponential effect on attendances.

I accept there are any number of costs on top of ticket prices, too. If you have kids, you’re familiar with the experience of bringing them to a game with €60 in your pocket and when you get home that’s gone and you’re not sure where it went.

“Because of those costs, I’m not sure if cutting ticket prices further would have much of an impact. For instance, we cut prices of early-round games last year compared to the latter end, but our figures show that attendances are good later compared to those early games. That isn’t done solely to boost attendances, though; without sounding corny, it’s genuinely being fair to people, because if their county makes it to an All-Ireland semi-final, it could be their third or fourth outing of the summer. Out of fairness to them, it doesn’t cost us a huge deal to take a fiver off the ticket price for a first-round game.”

Bums on seats was, however, viewed by Ryan as the “best barometer for everything else”.

“Certainly, you’d be worried that if we got something wrong in that regard, say in terms of prices, venues or competition structure, that what you’d lose would be difficult to get back.

“That can happen. People can recall sports that were very popular in terms of spectators. Snooker was huge when I was in school, but I couldn’t name three top snooker players now. You can’t be cynical about that, and if you took advantage of that, financially, with people, while you might benefit for maybe a year or so, you could do a lot of damage. All the other stuff is directly related to the games. Sponsors wouldn’t be interested, for instance, if the stadium is half-empty, nor would broadcasters, so a lot hinges on attendances.”

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