O'Neill's dreams are China in his hand and more players overseas than at home
Speaking to media in New York, GAA president Liam O’Neill expanded on comments he had made last week about the ambition that the number of footballers and hurlers overseas would overtake that of players in Ireland.
“That’s not unreasonable,” he said. “I spent Saturday morning in Rockland, a suburb north of the Bronx, and the club was founded in 1972 as a junior club but started a juvenile programme a number of years ago. They have six or seven hundred children, boys and girls, in the juvenile programme up there.
“They spent $2.3 million on their facilities, acquired a mental hospital facility that was being sold off and they managed to get their hands on seven to 10 acres in two lots. They’re going to spend a further $3m on facilities and they are just rooted in that community.
“I was out last night for a dinner dance in Shannon Gaels in Queens. They, after just 10 years, have acquired ground from the state,” he said, “they’re putting down roots too and they’d 11 juvenile teams at the Continental Youth Championships in Chicago and they’re just ready to spring off as well.
“Those are just two groups. The players met a lot more. Even here, it’s taking off at a huge rate. We have Chicago, a 56-acre site. Boston has a big place as well and Philadelphia is buying land.
“That’s just here on the east coast. Then you have San Francisco, Buffalo and all these other places springing up with juvenile activity. That’s going to be a huge boost.”
The president’s target is ambitious given the numbers playing overseas are less than 10 per cent of those at home: 16,000 against 250,000.
The growth of Gaelic games abroad recently hasn’t been restricted to the Irish community, with people with no Irish connection involved, women more noticeably, which will intensify discussions about enhanced integration of women’s sports associations and the GAA.
Selling Gaelic football
“If I was intending to sell Gaelic football around the world, I would probably lead with that ,” said O’Neill. “The take-up among women would be much faster than Gaelic football with men. I think we have failed so far to grasp that reality.”
The president also identified Asia as an area with great potential for development, citing the publicity impact of Xi Jinping, the new leader of China, visiting Croke Park earlier this year and being pictured kicking a football and holding a hurley.
“If we can get our TV campaign tidied up abroad and actually publicise our games I think there would be a huge take-up in China because China is supposed to be the place where ball and stick games originated.
“The visit of the vice-president was significant and the fact he took a hurley in his hand is also significant. It’s no longer about the emigrant going abroad and growing the GAA; it’s about the emigrant gone abroad whose child is now playing games. That’s where the growth is going to be.”
One item high on the overseas promotion agenda is international television rights. Understandably Gaelic games don’t have the profile of the English Premiership or Uefa Champions League but the GAA are looking to secure greater prominence for their big matches, even at the expense of revenue.
“It is very high up the agenda. It will be part of the new package when this one ends in 2014. If the GAA are going to grow abroad it will have to be done through television. Access to games through television is crucial.
“I don’t what to sound naive. Obviously, I am a primary school teacher and not a businessman, but I would regard promotion of the game as the most important thing.
“That’s why I said after the All-Ireland hurling draw that the
three weeks’ promotion was worth more than whatever the replay would bring in. The hype generated over those three weeks was invaluable and did a huge lot for hurling.
“I would prefer to succeed with the promotion of the games rather than the monetary value we get out of them.”
He conceded, however, the Gaelic games television product is compromised by the random nature of competition structures.
“That is always going to be our difficulty because we have club and county. If we only had 32 counties we would be fine, but we wouldn’t have our sport then .
“Our strength is our weakness in that regard. But I don’t think we could ever sacrifice our club activity for just county. That is always going to be a problem that sports like baseball and American football would never have.”