When Lockdown struck in 2020 the staff of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) could easily have slunk off for six months to binge on Netflix.
When everyone was confined to barracks they actually had a slight advantage over some sports. The organisation, like virtually all of its clubs, doesn’t own any bricks, mortar or pitches so they’d no major overheads or debt headaches.
They could have fiddled while the sporting world was burning but that is not the LGFA’s way.
Their regular education programmes – five separate strands covering players, coaches, match officials, club leaders and county leaders – were quickly pivoted into online webinars. Over 50,000 attended them, they got 280,000 views and all the content is still available on their YouTube Channel.
They also organised live streaming of games and, this year, showed every NFL and championship game via streaming.
In 2007 the LGFA had 132,182 members. By 2020 that had jumped by 32 per cent and next March’s AGM is expected to confirm membership has passed the 200,000 mark.
Their chief executive of 24 years, Helen O'Rourke, hears of All-Ireland final attendances of 3,000 in the 1970s. Now the LGFA set international records with 56,000-plus. Growth and engagement like that is particularly remarkable for a sport that isn't yet 50 years old (founded in 1974) and has just 14 staff in Croke Park, with four additional provincial Development Officers.
They don’t yet know their adult/juvenile ratio but that split will soon emerge thanks to the new ‘Foireann’ registration system which the GAA and camogie association are also using.
Ladies football expects Under-16s to dominate their membership but it is their creative approach to retaining those, and recruiting new adults, that explains some of their expansion.
In the past three months alone they have signed up 80 new Gaelic4Mothers&Others teams, their programme that gives women who had never played before a chance to kick ball in a fun, non-competitive way.
Lyn Savage, their National Development Officer, reckons lockdown contributed to this latest bounce.
“We’d usually have around 250 teams but this year it’s gone through the roof. I think women are especially eager to be active and having fun with their friends again. We’re up to 292 teams now.”
When Savage won an All-Ireland junior medal in 1998, as a 15-year-old goalkeeper for Louth, her club Cooley Kickhams was one of just four teams in her native county. Now there are over 30 with multiple underage sides. That junior final was actually the first game in which the LGFA used their stop-clock and hooter and such innovation has driven their growth.
Having live television coverage for the last 20 years, thanks to TG4, was another huge driver and also enabled them to start All Star tours in 2004, which has also grown the game abroad. You can find their playing rules translated into French, Spanish, Catalan and Estonian on their website.
It is also doubtful that they would have signed their ground-breaking sponsorship with Lidl in 2016, (who have invested €5m since) without that guarantee of TV.
The sport always benefitted from being able to piggy-back on the GAA’s pre-existing club network but it is how the LGFA has built their grassroots that is most instructive. They don’t provide schools or clubs with coaches but educate them to teach tailored participation initiatives like Gaelic4Girls, Gaelic4Teens and Club2Gether themselves.
“Our whole message is to empower clubs, to give them the tools to do it,” O’Rourke says. “If a school or club doesn’t want to do it themselves then the sport is never going to survive there.”
Gaelic4Mothers was noticeably designed not just as a recreational outlet but as a vehicle for club recruitment.
“A lot of the women who never kicked a ball before might not think they could contribute to a club. It helps to empower them to say ‘Yes, I can do this’ in lots of ways,” Savage explains.
O'Rourke was a student teacher in Marino before she first got the chance to kick ball and there were only four clubs in Dublin back then. The capital now has over 17,000 players in 70 clubs with nine divisions of adult competition.
Having the only full-time county board administrator in the country (since 2010) is a factor in that explosion and it seems no coincidence that Meath, who sensationally usurped them this year, now have a part-time development officer whom they are looking to make full-time.
The LGFA doesn’t have the money to fund such jobs but liaises with county boards to access any available funding from local sports partnerships and employment schemes.
Mick O’Keeffe, chief executive of Teneo, a communications and sports advisory company who helped broker the Lidl deal, says that Dublin’s county boards (GAA and LGFA) sharing the same sponsor (AIG) since 2013 was another seminal moment.
“Right from the start AIG’s first launch and billboard campaign featured men’s and women’s players side-by-side. You cannot underestimate the power of that.”
O’Keeffe has first-hand insight into the LGFA’s growth because he advised them, for a previous PR company, back in the early Noughties when they were still struggling for visibility and media coverage.
He says they were particularly prescient then in adopting their ongoing promotional model of creating their own content (written and visual) and giving it free to the media, long before social media took off.
"They also made big occasions out of set-piece events like All-Ireland, National League and club finals. That attracts media and sponsors and becomes a cyclical thing."
The LGFA still has struggles.
The controversy over that All-Ireland semi-final switch in December 2020 underlined how beholden they still are to the GAA for venues and, apart from the latter stages of the senior All-Ireland championships, their inter-county gate receipts are still buttons.
But the sport is now deeply embedded in Irish culture and communities, still growing and innovating. Three years ago they changed their U14 inter-county competition to blitz-style ‘Festivals of Football’ which allows for much more participants.
“At that level it shouldn’t all be about winning, winning,” O’Rourke says. “You don’t want to have a panel cut to 30 and so many young girls being told they’re not ‘good enough’ at 14.”
O’Keeffe says 20 years of hard slog and clever planning left the LGFA particularly well placed to benefit when corporate culture globally made its paradigm shift in the past decade.
“No major sponsor will engage with a sport now unless there’s some element of diversity and equality in it. The LGFA is attracting sponsors because people see the value in that, but also in their sport because it’s a really great game to play and watch.”
LGFA Growth in past 14 years
2007 – 132,182
2020 – 192,873
2007 – 997
2020 – 1395
All-Ireland Final Attendance
2007 – 21,327
2019* – ..56,114
(*Covid restrictions saw no supporters at 2020 final and 2021 final capped at 40,000).