Ciarán Murphy: Money starting to make GAA world go around
Threre’s been a change of priority in the association – where is it going to take us?
Players are willing to be amateur but they are less willing to accept amateur preparation and training techniques. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho
There appears to be a growing consensus that the GAA is headed down the wrong path. The impending appointment of a new director-general, and the new broom which that would entail, may be what has caused this level of navel-gazing, but in truth we’ve never needed too much of an excuse, particularly not in January.
I should say that this is not one of those occasions where we’re talking about Joe Brolly without mentioning his name. True, he’s been writing his column for quite a while now, and it’s easy to be cynical about his motivations sometimes, but he’s been joined in recent times by noticeably cooler heads.
The argument, to summarise much of what has been written by those and others, is that the GAA’s collection of finance from various sources has been done haphazardly, and with little or no consideration for who they’re getting it off. That has led to an upending of priorities, where that collection of money is now more important to Croke Park than meeting the needs of the rank-and-file. The key word here of course, is money.
It is reasonable, in any situation where money appears to be a controversial factor, to ask “cui bono [who benefits]?”
But that’s the thing – no-one is making the argument that personal enrichment has anything whatsoever to do with the Sky TV deal, or any of the other money-driven decisions under the microscope. But there does appear to have been a change of priority. So what caused it?
GAA balance-sheets around the country, county boards and clubs, are dominated by two things. The first is capital investment, for which many projects get funding from Croke Park, via the media and sponsorship deals that are currently under scrutiny. The second is team preparation.
In turn, the explosion in the cost of running teams at club and county level has been driven by two things.
The first reason is the great elephant in the GAA boardroom – county boards and clubs are paying people to manage their teams. Not everyone is getting paid, and not everyone is doing it right now, but the fact is that there is scarcely a unit in the association that can say ‘we never have, and we never will, pay someone under the table to prepare our teams’.
People are right to suggest that once money comes into the equation, things get complicated. But the biggest threat to volunteerism in the GAA isn’t the Sky Sports deal, it’s the complicity of everyone in deciding not to talk about managers and coaches getting paid. And remember – volunteerism is still at the heart of every club in the country, after 30 years or more of paid managers at every level of the games.
The second driver behind the high cost of running club and county teams is that players are more and more committed to getting the best out of themselves. Asking for a recalibration of focus onto the club is all well and good, but if you ask players themselves (a constituency of people we constantly berate the GAA for not consulting) they want to be as good as they can be.
Club players want to be inter-county players. Inter-county players want to challenge themselves against the best. Some people might call that elitism, but that is the essence of sport.
Players are willing to be amateur, but they are less willing to accept amateur preparation and training techniques, particularly when the people overseeing that training might be getting handsomely rewarded themselves.
Club and county players now are putting in vast multiples of effort more than any other generation. County finals were always being played in October, and November, and December – but players are less willing to put up with it now, because they’re putting in way more effort. They demand the best from their club and their county set-ups when they’re in there. They’re no longer happy to go with the flow.
All that costs money. And while the GAA at central level is strong financially, everywhere they look they see clubs and county boards struggling to keep their heads above water. In that context, the GAA talking about ‘revenue models’ and ‘maximising their market value’ might be seen by those making these decisions as urgently required.
Poor people don’t always make the most cold-hearted, analytical decisions. The GAA at central level aren’t poor, but they’re tied to a lot of poor county boards. To paraphrase Michael Crichton, they’re so preoccupied with asking if they could make money, they didn’t stop to ask if they should.
In so many ways, 2018 will be a landmark year. Postponing the obituaries until after we’ve seen what this grand recalibration can do for us would be a start.