User Menu

GAA’s steady path from amateur tradition to capitalist commodity

Joanne O’Riordan: Sky deal is just the latest factor in the GAA moving away from its roots

Dr Hyde Park has the backdrop of a graveyard. Photo: Inpho

The sports world is a lived world, like those of literature and the theatre, that is highly charged with human meaning. As a dramatic and symbolic world, the sports world has its own plots, scenes, characters and settings. The game itself is the ritual hub of the sports universe; the team provides social structure; sports language gives the world cohesion; fans play the game vicariously through the athletes. Underneath and penetrating all the dramatic appeals is the powerful symbolism of play. The success of the sports world rests on its ability to build its symbolic structure on the memory of play, on the illusion of play, and, finally, on the fantasy of play. – R. Lipsky, How We Play the Game: Why Sports Dominate American Life

The capitalist world that we live in today has generally been questioned, shook and doubted throughout a time of political turbulence. Capitalism, it is argued, is the sole reason we live in a world of inequality and as a result, we live in a society where we strive to consume. Power, both politically and societally, has normally been within the grasp of people with higher economic status, whether that is achieved through individual sacrifice resulting in upward social mobility, or just being born into a family in which your ancestors achieved great status.

Sport is no different. In 1996, an Australian media baron by the name of Rupert Murdoch announced that his aim was to “use sports as a battering ram and a lead offering in all our pay television operations”. In the early 1990s, the then new satellite broadcaster Sky/BSB needed a reason for people to subscribe. Coincidentally, at just this time the top teams in the football league realised they could make more money from TV rights, and they broke away to form the Premier League. The deal they did with Sky in 1992 was worth £38 million a year. The subsequent deals raised that to £168 million, then £400 million, then £568 million. The latest deal, jointly with Sky and BT, for 2013-16, is worth £1 billion a year.

The Sky deal with the GAA is thought to be Route 66 into the hearts of Irish people, just like the routes to British hearts was through their beloved football teams, rugby teams and so on. The interesting thing with the GAA/Sky deal is that it doesn’t naturally fit the way it does with soccer and the Premier League. The traditional panoramic views of the Etihad Stadium, Wembley and Anfield where everything looks sleek and glossy is replaced with Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon and a graveyard adjacent. In Mullingar, the back of a Dunnes Stores compliments the atmosphere of Cusack Park. Sky have yet to figure out a way to infiltrate our market.

Are we just rejecting a capitalist ploy here or is there something more? Rural Ireland communities are currently in a situation where mobile phone coverage is slack, let alone how we’re supposed to get Wi-Fi with over 2mb of speed to access a live stream our beloved game.

The other capitalist issue that’s highly rejected is how the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. For too long, we as a nation, have been left a catastrophic mess due to the antics of the upper class. Just recently, Taoiseach Varadker made a disastrous comment about who really are the middle-class workers, leaving people frantically searching for their rightful place in our capitalist society.

The GAA, in theory, allows us all to be one in an amateur status. The amateur status is designed to make sure the playing field is equal and that nobody can be separated due to money, status, or power, just pure talent and skill. Yet, we find ourselves in a position where Dublin have a sponsorship – in the amateur world – that could easily guarantee correct facilities for an Olympic bound athlete and a chance to excel in their field. We see other teams doing “charitable” things to reach the heights that they desire. That in itself is a rejection of amateurism and a step forward in capitalism.

But, sport, in the end, is a reflection of society. As the gulf in football is widening at an alarming rate, GAA chiefs find themselves in an unenviable position. Do they do something radical and become either right, centre or left? Do they just sit back, like elected representatives and watch as the lower class fight for a higher status? Time will tell, but, all we can do as fans is sit back and watch, as yet another aspect of our life turns into yet another commodity.