GAA deal with Sky divides loyalties

Opinion: What happens when you package an ethos and sell it to a profit-driven monolith?

‘Up to now, the GAA has played a blinder. “Community is at the heart of our association .
.
.We are a volunteer-led organisation. All our members play and engage in our games as amateurs,” says its mission statement.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘Up to now, the GAA has played a blinder. “Community is at the heart of our association . . .We are a volunteer-led organisation. All our members play and engage in our games as amateurs,” says its mission statement.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, Apr 4, 2014, 12:01

Years of reporting on tragic events for this newspaper have left one indelible image.

That’s the gallery of rugged, kindly faces of the GAA men in their high-vis vests, marshalling the parking in the neighbour’s field, shielding grieving families from voyeurs, urging the stricken young men in the club jerseys to honour a departed friend with a stoical guard of honour. These men were doing what comes naturally; minding their own.

They do it in a way no event organiser could, because they know the territory, the lie of the fields, the precise capacity of the local club house. Volunteerism and loyalty are stamped in their bones. For them, community, club and parish are indivisible under a single banner: the GAA. They are proud to serve a great national movement immersed in an ethos of amateurism and communal ownership. That’s a lot of meaning to invest in one organisation. Is there anything quite like it anywhere in the world?

Yes, yes, I know. This is the kind of romantic, rural drivel that has driven a lot of people mad this week – and not all of them from south Co Dublin. It was exemplified in an explosive response to a few Prime Time contributors who dared to mention the GAA’s volunteer-led ethos: “Sweet Jesus! Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers! There are volunteers in soccer, rugby, Special Olympics, etc, all sports in Ireland.”

He had a point; many sports lean on generosity of spirit. But anyone who claims that the GAA is interchangeable with soccer or rugby really ought to get out more. Why are GAA clubs among the first ports of call for journalists gauging the effect of emigration on small communities?

Why is the diaspora being wheeled out to explain why the GAA simply had to get into bed with Sky? If some can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge its unique position, how are we to have an honest debate on where the Sky deal is taking us?

Up to now, the GAA has played a blinder. “Community is at the heart of our association . . .We are a volunteer-led organisation. All our members play and engage in our games as amateurs,” says its mission statement. It has held this line for more than 20 years, while overseeing the wholesale incursions of big-name sponsors, television rights, corporate boxes, foreign games and sundry rock stars into its historic temple, all the while batting away regular media eruptions over “grants”, “expenses” and under-the- counter sweeteners for amateur managers and players.

Amateurs? Who bats an eye now at the notion of (purportedly) unpaid county managers boasting the backroom sophistication of any professional sports club? When Dublin star Bernard Brogan’s multi- sports agency Legacy was set up over a year ago, the founders noted wisely that “the GAA . . . is in every livingroom in the country so it has huge reach that brands are interested in”. The potential was already twinkling seductively. And that was before Sky’s intervention.


Social media reaction
It was a revealing moment on Tuesday when GAA luminary former president Nickey Brennan was asked about the reaction to the deal. He said he had been monitoring social media all evening and was well pleased with the response. But the regiments of ageing stalwarts who comprise the GAA’s backbone were hardly the ones tweeting furiously during Prime Time , with such nuanced gems as, “Only one argument peddled here. Old man in rural Ireland can’t make it to match.”

So is social media the corporate GAA’s new touchstone? If so, it should tread carefully. Once you cede judgment to social media, you cannot pick and choose. So, here is well-known pundit, lawyer and former footballer, Joe Brolly: “The GAA’s new motto: Pay per view but not pay for play”. And here is the Mayo footballer with more than 20,000 followers, tweeting that although
Sky’s interest must be the players, the deal would mean “more money to the GAA coffers . . . will this filter to the players . . .? I don’t think so.”

Or Kerry’s Tadhg Kennelly: “It’s great for coverage and promotion but when will the players be rewarded for their contribution. Can’t have pro(fessional) org(anisation) and amateur status.”

How many giddy young GAA stars are eyeing the Sky deal with dollar signs in their eyes? Who really believes that the amateur code, and all that flows from it , will still be extant in four or five years? What happens when you package an ethos, a social value, and sell it to a cash-rich, profit-driven monolith? Will we even notice as the doughty men in the high-vis vests fade into folk memory?

Australia’s Channel 7 tweeted word of its new sports catch yesterday: “To be sure, to be sure – we’re showing live #GAA Gaelic football this year. Games will be v late night so you’ll need coffee. Or Guinness!” Aren’t you proud?

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