Grassroots betrayed by GAA ruling on pitch ads
Last Wednesday a bombshell arrived in Longford when a letter from Croke Park spelled out what the GAA's recently announced 'multi-sponsorship model' really means.
When Longford play Westmeath in the opening game of the 2008 championship in Pearse Park next Sunday, any advertising sign in view of the cameras, which is practically all of them, will be covered up and only three signs will be visible. These are Ulster Bank, Vodafone and Toyota, who, presumably, will get saturation exposure all around Pearse Park.
Those wonderful GAA people who have been so excited about all the money the organisation will be getting from sponsorship and television rights from now on have a rude awakening in store this week. Or at least all of them who were innocent enough to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Despite what the amateur idealists in the GAA may think, one of the main purposes of the organisation is to maximise profits just like any other commercial venture.
They charge as much as they can for the service they supply -- ie, admission to games -- and spend months extracting the very last cent out of television companies by playing them off against each other for maximum commercial gain, and they strike very hard deals for sponsors, as witnessed with the recent long, drawn-out proposals this year.
In the real world, every commercial deal that is made has strings attached, even in the GAA, and that is why we are heading for open warfare when the recent decision to black out the current advertising in many leading GAA county grounds is due to be enforced at Pearse Park in front of live RTE television.
This is a direct quote from Croke Park on the matter: "This is designed to help us improve the presentation of our games and to have the new sponsors join with the GAA in marketing our games." Ahem!
Now let's strip this rigmarole to the basics. What the GAA bosses want is for Longford to cover up most of the 66 signs in Pearse Park and let the three main sponsors cover three sides of the ground for television purposes. This means that nearly all the loyal local advertisers will be barred from the Longford-Westmeath match.
This is simply outrageous, because the signage in Pearse Park, as with most GAA grounds, is at the very heart of local GAA activity. Most of the advertising is given by individual companies because of their dedication to the GAA, in this case in Longford. They pay good money but they know it goes straight towards Longford fundraising and such small counties simply cannot survive without this sort of friendly subvention. To deprive these loyal GAA people of having their signs on the biggest day of the year in front of national television is an insult to everything the heart and soul of the GAA stands for.
It is easy to understand the rationale of this new decision because it is largely based on the television coverage of Champions League soccer.
But there is one small matter which nobody in the GAA seems to have accepted: GAA people are happy enough to have commercial activity so as to maximise revenue for future development, but the ethos of the GAA is based on local involvement and commitment rather than all-out commercial exploitation. That's where the GAA differs from rugby and soccer at present, and that is why county boards and local advertisers will rebel against this latest proposal. I believe each county will be paid a grant if they have county grounds covered by this new edict, but that money will be seen as a mere sop that local GAA people will not be interested in.
Just ask Longford County Board officials this week to start explaining to their loyal and long-standing advertisers, who may have been backing the local GAA for 40 years, why they are being banned from the most important fixture of the year and see what happens. It would be reneging on everything the GAA stands for in Longford and elsewhere.
Prior to the glamour Leinster championship game in 2006 at Pearse Park when Dublin were the star attraction, the local GAA people drew up three or five-year advertising contracts for Pearse Park at around €3,500 for each of the 66 clients. It is likely that if the GAA go ahead with their 'cover-up' plan, these contracts will be legally smashed with all the consequences that that will entail.
To really rub salt into the wounds at local level, Croke Park has requested that all the local advertisers be written to by Longford County Board and told what is being proposed, which is to get lost for the day. You can imagine how that letter will be received, if it ever sees the light of day, which I doubt.
No doubt some of the bigger GAA counties will row in with the new Croke Park proposals because they are financially well off and their county grounds are not as dependent on local advertising. So, once again, the stronger units of the GAA will continue to thrive while counties like Longford remain on the hind teat.
GAA people have no great problem with the principle of running the organisation professionally and maximising the finances, provided some GAA members are not being asked to sell their souls for money. But it is surely ironic that in the light of the recent controversy over the GPA grants, which may give Longford players about €50 per week from the government, we now have a professional proposal which strikes at the very heart of local GAA activity. Surely there is an element of professionalism about what is proposed for Longford GAA -- more so than all the controversy of the government giving €50 a week to those dedicated Longford players who devote so much time and effort for a usually fruitless county cause. These young men play for Longford for the honour and glory of the GAA and their county and clubs, but is that really the policy of those who want to black out the local GAA supporters in Longford by banning them from appearing on the biggest day of the year?
I know some advertisers in Pearse Park who advertise solely because they want to identify with their own local club through their business and thereby give status to the club. Nothing could be more local in GAA terms than that, because they are putting their money where their mouths are. If these advertisements are shown on national television that is an extension of the same principle which guides the All-Ireland club championships -- loyalty to the local parish, which GAA bosses constantly tell us is the heart and soul of the association.
The GAA is very successful nowadays in its off-the-field activities, which is good news. But there is more to the GAA than money, sponsorship or television rights. There is the local patriotism of club members which has been the very essence of the GAA for 124 years in Longford and elsewhere.
Who in the GAA has the right to change all that now?