Jack Anderson: Nudging, not pushing, for change is Tom Ryan’s remit

Last week, the GAA reported on the organisation’s activities for 2019. The GAA’s financial review for the year showed that it is in robust health, recycling an environmentally-friendly 84% of its €73.9m in revenue back into GAA units, writes Jack Anderson.

Jack Anderson: Nudging, not pushing, for change is Tom Ryan’s remit

Last week, the GAA reported on the organisation’s activities for 2019. The GAA’s financial review for the year showed that it is in robust health, recycling an environmentally-friendly 84% of its €73.9m in revenue back into GAA units.

The exception on the financial front may the red and white light still flashing from Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which, like the holidaying family’s faulty house alarm, has left the neighbourhood annoyed and resentful.

Tom Ryan’s report as Director General was restrained in tone, occasionally dull and technical but substantive and transparent. In this it had all the characteristics of good sports administration. As other Irish sports organisations have learned to their cost — indeed, as political parties and banks in Ireland have too — beware the promises of the charismatic leader.

One way to describe Ryan’s approach to leadership in the GAA might be what behavioural scientists call the nudge theory whereby small, continuous but positively reinforced measures nudge people in a direction that changes their behaviour for the greater good.

A celebrated example of nudge theory happened in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in 1999 when the image of a fly in the urinals nudged men to aim straighter, cutting down on spillages (and associated cleaning costs) by 80%.

Given the GAA’s community’s sensitivity to directives from the “top brass at Croke Park” — the over-reaction to the GAA’s sensible guidance on the privacy of What’s App communications being an example — nudging things along seems to be a wise choice by Ryan.

And so, while you would like the GAA’s Director General and its President to take large, bold steps on issues like fixtures or championship structures; that is not going to happen, change will be incremental.

The GAA is at its strategic best when the executive appoints talented people to committees with discrete terms of reference, and then gives them the room to come up with solutions that can be implemented easily but effectively.

The outstanding work and report of the GAA’s “Talent Academy and Player Development Review Committee” released at the end of 2019 is an example of this and a credit to all involved in the manner in which it focused on the development and retention of young players.

Returning to Tom Ryan’s report, he made some interesting points on the financial sustainability of the inter-county game.

He hinted that some sort of cap may have to be put on spending by county boards.

How this cap might be regulated was not elaborated upon and Ryan admitted that when it came to investigating payments declared or otherwise on inter-county teams, the organisation’s previous efforts had been “mixed”. In the dictionary of Hiberno-English slang, the term “mixed” in this context really means “cat melodeon”. As former GAA President Peter Quinn said of one investigation: “it wasn’t just that we couldn’t find the cash under the table; we couldn’t even find the table.”

Quinn’s quip remains current. The GAA public has a fantastic ability at times to wrestle with its conscience and win: while much angst abounds about both the lucrative circuit of intercounty and club managers and on Croke Park’s apparent inaction; in reality, all of us who are part of the GAA are complicit in the continuing sham-amateurism of it all.

If an agreement that a cap on inter-county spending ever emerges, we can see from professional sport that it will be difficult to police — witness the salary cap scandal at Saracens in English rugby and Manchester City’s financial fair play violations.

That being said, some way of curtailing spending on inter county teams has to be debated and found. When it comes to sport, and without proper regulation, it seems that even the most basic precautionary business principles are soon forgotten.

Last week, for example, it was reported that in the previous two transfer windows, relegation-troubled Aston Villa were second only to Real Madrid in spending deficit, having bought €172 million’s worth of talent and selling only €3m.

The minus €169m on Villa’s balance sheet will, of course, be mitigated by TV money. TV money is not a huge feature of the GAA’s finances. The GAA’s financial report for 2019 revealed that nearly half of its revenues (49%) came from gate receipts. The exact figure €36.5m was boosted in 2019 by increased ticket prices and the All-Ireland football replay.

Accordingly, and remembering that there is now €30m spent yearly by county boards on intercounty preparations, you can see that there will soon be parity between that spent on preparing inter county teams and that generated by those who go to watch them.

In the GAA’s own unique way, pay for play already exists.

Aggravating things is that in addition to the money, the time and thought that county boards must now give matters inter-county inevitably means that matters intra-county suffer.

The solution maybe in basic economics: if supplying money to subsidise the inter-county game is becoming unsustainable; then controlling the demand by condensing the inter-county season needs to be happen.

In his report, Tom Ryan discussed all of this in reasonable tones. Surprisingly, the intercounty players’ body, the GPA, reacted by accusing him of deeming and demeaning them as the GAA’s problem child. That phrase had originally been ascribed to ex-FAI CEO John Delaney, in dismissive remarks on the League of Ireland.

In contrast, the use of the phrase by the GPA’s CEO Paul Flynn was like a Freudian slip because anyone discussing financial sustainability in any Irish sport should look at the travails of League of Ireland clubs trying to self-sustain even a semi-professional model in the small, competitive Irish sporting market.

To be fair, Flynn’s remarks should be seen in the context of the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the GAA and GPA.

In those negotiations, as with other matters, the GAA will be nudged forward by its Director General Tom Ryan — trying to ensure that its membership aims true but also accepting of the odd spill.

- Jack Anderson is professor of sports law, University of Melbourne

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