GAA hoping to keep ball rolling for commercial opportunities

Association will launch a chocolate bar with Cadbury

Peter McKenna, stadium and commercial director at Croke Park. “Certainly the spend per head is up and the number of conferences has increased.” Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Peter McKenna, stadium and commercial director at Croke Park. “Certainly the spend per head is up and the number of conferences has increased.” Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times


It might be an amateur association at heart but the GAA has proved itself to be highly professional in recent years at exploiting commercial opportunities to fund the expansion of its games.

This year will see it sign a new TV rights deal, replace Ulster Bank as a title sponsor of its All-Ireland senior football championship, host a collegiate American football game and three One Direction concerts at Croke Park, add a zip wire to visitor facilities at the stadium, and launch a chocolate bar with Cadbury.

“It’s going to be another busy year for us,” said GAA stadium and commercial director Peter McKenna in a pre-Christmas interview.

The big ticket item for the GAA this year will be signing a new three-year TV rights deal. It’s worth €10 million a year to the association at present.

The current one expires in May 2014, and McKenna expects a new deal to be agreed in the next two to three months.

Is Sky Sports at the table?

“I wouldn’t like to speculate because everyone is in a process. We already have a pay-per-view option with Setanta [Sports]. They’ve been with us for a number of years and have done a very good job.”

McKenna declined to be drawn on how much the GAA might earn this time around from its TV rights.

“I could guarantee that we could double that number [€10 million] but that would maybe be the wrong thing to do.

“It’s a balance between getting as many people as possible to see the games and interact with them in a way that generates an income. It’s about high-class production values and accessibility.”

The GAA has divided its rights into three markets – the island of Ireland, the UK, and then the rest of the world, dominated by the US and Australia.

“We’re really anxious to get our matches to as many people as possible in the US and Australia. There’s a massive demand there.

“We want to do it in a way that is using the best new technology. So that is getting into a more streaming environment.”

For those living abroad, McKenna said there would be a mix of options for fans.

“There could be match-day tickets or season tickets and there will be some free-to-view. You need a revenue source to keep the production values high. So there will be a combination of things.”

McKenna is also busy seeking a sponsor for the All-Ireland senior football championship to replace Ulster Bank. The cost will be between €1.2 million to €1.4 million a year.

The draw is having your brand associated with 61 games each season, watched by 1.1 million at stadiums around the country, and a TV audience of about 13 million from the 25 live free-to-air games.

The GAA operates a panel of sponsors for its football and hurling championships, something that McKenna said has worked well.

Musgrave last year sold three million GAA match tickets through its SuperValu and Centra shops, which sponsor the All-Ireland senior football and hurling championships respectively.

“That’s huge for them. It means there’s a compelling reason for people to go into the shops.”

The GAA is busy on many other commercial fronts. Aramark recently won a tender to provide catering at Croke Park and the association is working with Eircom, a sponsor of the All-Ireland football championship, to provide free wifi at the stadium for up to 50,000 people at a time.

This would allow fans to order food and drinks directly to their seats in the stadium while watching a game. “This is a project that will take two to three years to complete,” McKenna said.

The GAA museum at Croke Park did 100,000 visitors last year, with the Skyline rooftop tour attracting 20,000.

The association has spent €1.5 million upgrading facilities, aided by a grant from Fáilte Ireland of €350,000.

“Where we have struggled is that tour buses don’t come this far, but we’ve had a breakthrough there in that Dualway will be bringing its tour bus to Croke Park from next March.”

It is planning to add a zip wire in a €300,000-plus investment that will offer visitors the thrill of travelling from just under the roof of the stand to the foot of Hill 16.

“The idea is to add to the thrill of the rooftop tour. It would [be open] just a portion of the year. We have a couple of engineering issues that we’re working through [and]…ideally it will open in the summer.”

The GAA will also launch a chocolate bar with Cadbury in April.

The Moro GAA bar will be exclusively distributed through Musgrave shops in a novel deal that brings two of its key sponsors together.

Croke Park’s conference business is “very strong”, McKenna said, a signal that “there’s a lift in the economy”.

“Certainly the spend per head is up and the number of conferences has increased.”

The GAA is also gearing up for the Croke Park Classic, which will see the University of Central Florida and Penn State face off in an American football college game on August 30th.

McKenna said 25,000 tickets sold out in the first 10 days, with sales coming from the US, Britain, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

The GAA has paid more than €2 million for the right to stage the game.

“We put up that investment to guarantee the teams,” McKenna explained, adding that he would like to make these college matches an annual affair from 2018.

“We’ll make our money back and some.”

Croke Park will also host three sell-out concerts in May by boy band One Direction. There were no concerts at Croke Park last year, which “put a chill through the accounts”.

Concerts can cost the association up to €2.5 million to host but the return can be substantial. For example, The Take That gigs in 2011 generated bar sales of €1 million.

Alcohol will not be a feature of the One Direction gigs.

“We’ll be reflecting the audience. What we don’t want is a situation where young people are exposed to alcohol.”

Overall, McKenna is looking forward to 2014 on and off the pitch.

“We’re going to have another great year in hurling, and the football will be as competitive as ever. We’ve a lot going on commercially, and I think it’s going to be a very good year for the association.”