Man who sold us the new Croke Park

 

GAELIC GAMES:Dermot Power left his banking career behind to play a key role in rebranding the GAA and rebuilding its flagship stadium, writes SEAN MORAN

FOR SOMETHING so rooted in bricks and mortar and concerned with the hard realities of commerce, Dermot Power’s GAA career, which wrapped up yesterday, has a vague and even fantastic quality.

Like The Wizard of Oz, it could even be said to have originated in Kansas where over 20 years ago at the invitation of former director general Liam Mulvihill he went to look at a stadium and meet HOK Lobb, the renowned sports architects who drew up the Croke Park master plan.

At the time, Power was sponsorship manager at Bank of Ireland and had been in the US with the touring All Stars in his role as co-ordinator of the awards scheme, then sponsored by the bank. Although it would be another couple of years before he actually came on board with the GAA, he suspects Mulvihill was lining him up at an early stage for an involvement.

“When I asked Liam, ‘why should I leave the bank and go’? he said ‘because you’ll be part of something that will change people’s perception of the GAA, but more importantly will change the GAA’s perception of itself’. Liam, in his modesty, says they weren’t his words, but they articulate the project.”

Power’s sporting background was unusual in the context of the GAA if not for someone from Limerick. A good club rugby player, he propped for Bohemians in his native city and, after moving to Dublin, captained a Lansdowne side featuring, amongst others, the late Moss Keane to a Leinster League title in 1973.

But it was his marketing ability with the Bank of Ireland that brought him into the GAA’s orbit after he became the link man between the association and the bank’s sponsorship of the All Stars.

Forging a close relationship with Mulvihill, Power made the move to Croke Park in late 1993, initially on a two-year secondment from the bank – his former employers continuing to pay part of his salary – an arrangement that was simply rolled over all the way to 2000 when he finally joined the headquarters’ GAA staff.

It was an appointment that saw him become an integral part of the GAA’s Big Bang years in the early to mid 1990s when the association rebuilt Croke Park, embraced sponsorship and opened up its games to live television.

He recalls he was the 25th full-time employee when he sat in his office 18 years ago. Now there are around 100 people on the payroll between GAA administration and the running of the stadium. In the year of his arrival, the association took in €6 million (IR£4.8 million); by last year that had increased to €58 million.

Although his duties eventually branched out to include general sponsorship, marketing and the increasingly complex world of media rights (in 1993 the GAA had just split the broadcast rights in two – national (RTÉ) and international (Chrysallis/Sterling); this year Power says there are 30 different bundles of rights governing media access to Gaelic games), there’s no mistaking the pride and enthusiasm for his original task, the selling of the new Croke Park.

He remembers standing in the rubble of the old Cusack Stand trying to sell the concept of premium facilities in a country that had yet to experience them and with the only evidence of their putative existence contained in a glossy brochure of architectural drawings and artists’ impressions.

“I was invited over,” he says, “because there were problems in selling the corporate facilities and they were absolutely vital to the funding of the project. We set out to sell 15 per cent of the accommodation to pay for 65 per cent of the project cost.

“In the early days there was no great confidence in the project. Several people looked at you sceptically and said ‘the GAA aren’t going to be able to do that’ and a cynicism about whether we’d be able to do it properly.”

Ironically, for what was perceived as an elitist concept, the premium sector was sold using the vast GAA network of contacts for whom the stadium – winner of triennial RIAI Gold Medal in 2009 and named by The Irish TimesEnvironment Editor Frank McDonald as the outstanding architectural legacy of the boom – was overwhelmingly a positive image.

“I think it gave a sense of confidence and pride,” recalls Power. “When we were selling the corporate facilities, an awful lot of what we used to describe as dormant GAA people came forward in their companies and proudly championed the purchase of these facilities.”

He disputes criticism of the premium concept as counter to the GAA’s ideals of democracy and mass participation.

“We were unashamed about the premium level and suites because we said they were subsidising the provision of the facilities and made no apologies for that. The other thing is that when the premium did open the people there didn’t come down from Mars. An awful lot of them were GAA members.

“The atmosphere on that level has actually been one of the great successes of Croke Park. It’s very informal and with the number of supporters and county jerseys it doesn’t have that stuffy, corporate-y feel. It has a great personality.”

He remembers with pride the day the first facilities opened, in the new Cusack Stand after some late wrangling over a fire certificate in advance of the 1995 Leinster football final.

“We stood at the bottom of the escalators and watched people arriving and listened to what we called ‘the Jaysus factor’. Coming in through the entrance at the back of the Cusack, they suddenly saw these Dublin and Meath banners hanging down and it was a case of ‘Jaysus, look at this!’”

He reckons the GAA got disproportionate criticism for the £20 million National Lottery grant opportunistically announced with the 1997 budget simply because it was the first major allocation of funds to a sports organisation.

It prompted one letter writer to this paper to ask the government to give the GAA an ordinary grant and take back the ‘magic £20 million’ that could simultaneously have solved so many other problems.

“It was always going to be built,” according to Power, “regardless of the government money. The only issue is how long it would have taken.”

He says the best bit of marketing throughout the project was selling the Canal End as an interim facility for those on the waiting list for the Hogan Stand, thus creating a demand for what had been seen as the least saleable of the construction phases and also showcasing it to large numbers of people, many of whom were happy to invest in it once the Hogan opened in 2002.

With the stadium developed, Power’s remit extended farther into the commercial sphere, in which he says

he always had an interest and involvement. “Before I left the bank I remember going to Brian Brown in Guinness and saying, ‘I have an idea. We should try and sponsor the football and you sponsor the hurling’. He asked me who I was representing and I said ‘nobody yet, but this is coming’. Shortly after I left for Croke Park the bank concluded the deal and, eventually, Guinness followed.”

Painstakingly, the GAA’s commercial environment has been changed. What was described – in a phrase that haunts Power – as “the blizzard of brands” at Croke Park and other grounds has been cleared, but not without the inevitable struggle between the operational arm of the GAA and the grass-roots.

Through the work of UCD Prof Tony Meenaghan as a consultant on commercial and sponsorship issues, the product offered has become more streamlined and sponsor-friendly in an ongoing effort to maintain revenue at levels that can support the association’s activities in dire economic conditions.

On a separate issue, the marketing report of 2005 warned against Croke Park developing into a “good brand” while the GAA remained the “bad brand” with its controversies and perceived conservatism, and secondly, the multi-sponsor model for the championships, which was introduced in 2008.

For such a public success, Croke Park managed to become a focus of internal dissent. There has been a sense of alienation between the membership at large and what is seen as an out-of-touch head office.

“One of the challenges going forward,” according to Power, “is that we have to have an accurate up-to-date database in order to communicate properly with the membership.”

There also developed a serious tension between the emerging stadium wing of the organisation and the traditional organisational base – old Croke Park and new Croke Park.

“The way Croke Park was set up as a separate entity didn’t help,” he says.

“I had reservations at the time about separating it from the GAA; I don’t think you can do that. We might think it’s a good idea to set up a separate business in Croke Park, but you try to tell the membership that because I think they feel Croke Park is theirs not ours – the people who operate it.

“I took the view that Croke Park is a sub-brand of the GAA. I think having Croke Park as a separate entity charging off into the sunset as a stand-alone business was wrong. I think the structure was wrong because the PCT team were given a brief to run the business with no interaction with the GAA and they had no reporting relationship with the director general.

“So we had two organisations and the only common denominator was the president of the day, who ended up assuming the role of chief executive and that changed the dynamic of the role of the presidency hugely from when I first went over.

“There were bad relations and we were less than professional in the way we presented ourselves to the outside world because you had two brands selling the same thing in the same market, competing with each other even though they were both GAA brands.

“I remember when we had Bank of Ireland as sponsors they would have a contract with us and there would be separate contracts with competitors of theirs to have signs around Croke Park. We would have no say in it – that’s insane . . . that made it very difficult for our people to interact with us.”

He identifies the unfolding role of president as the biggest change in the working environment at Croke Park. Previously, the office holder wasn’t full-time and duties were largely confined to ambassadorial travel around the clubs and outposts of the association as well as chairing the important central committees.

Power says his decision to step down at – albeit a youthful looking – 61 was planned around the first renewal of the multi-sponsorships, but asked did some of his spirit flag on the retirement on Liam Mulvihill four years ago, he doesn’t attempt to conceal the answer.

“I was very close to him and we enjoyed working together. Good question – I think the answer is probably ‘yes’. I don’t mean that in any way disrespectfully to Páraic, who’s someone of the highest integrity. But when you work so closely with someone who leaves you miss the daily interaction. I think we complemented each other very well.”

He describes – like Breandán Ó hEithir in Over the Bar – what he sees as the meaning of the GAA. In Power’s case it concerns his holiday home in Clare and the local club, which had asked association president Christy Cooney to open a new stand at their ground.

“Coming up to the opening they were struggling to get it finished and four fellas came over from Doonbeg, the arch-enemy, and said ‘we hear you’re under a bit of pressure. Can we help out?’ So they worked there for the week and the lads asked could they make it up to them for their time.

“The response was ‘ah, no – sure we’d never hear the end of it if we took money off you’.

“That’s the community that exists across thousands of clubs all over the county and that hasn’t changed.”