Monday 29 August 2016

Recession may prove timely saviour of GAA

Published 19/01/2009 | 08:36

Many sectors of the GAA have lost the run of themselves as regards money and it might take the present recession to restore financial sanity. Some county boards and clubs have been getting involved in financial dealings and transactions that are far removed from the ideals of GAA founders.

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We all know about some county managers being illegally paid from €30,000 to €75,000 a year. We know too about some star players getting large appearance fees to attend even GAA functions, although many players do attend such functions for nothing. The country is awash with well-paid, full-time coaches in every county and third-level institution in the country and we are now installing full-time, paid county secretaries. And probably the biggest expense in the GAA is the illegal payment of club coaches, which runs into millions every year.

All this was fine and dandy for the past 10 years as the Irish economy thrived on unprecedented levels of opulence in every parish in the land, almost. The weekly GAA club lotto brought in something like €30m every year among the 3,000 or so clubs. And then to cap it all, several county boards decided to become property developers. Not content with the prosperous state in which the GAA had already found itself in the early parts of this century, and possibly blinded by the great success of the Croke Park development, it was decided the time was ripe to cash in on many of the famous GAA county grounds, a lot of which were situated in prime locations in many towns.

So we heard stories about huge financial deals being proposed for Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Cusack Park in Ennis, Mullingar's Cusack Park and St Conleth's Park, Newbridge, among others. Developers were the catalysts for activity with incredible figures, as high as €50m in places, being offered to the county boards if they would move out of town to new state-of-the-art stadia with mod cons like all-weather pitches, covered stands, floodlighting and whatever the latest new-fangled idea that might arrive should be.

Many ordinary GAA people were aghast at these proposals, mainly on the grounds of tradition. Every GAA ground has its own place in the fan's memory and many were unhappy to see long-standing venues being knocked down and covered over with shopping centres and housing estates.

But there were many other GAA people who had more serious worries than sentiment. They feared the trend of county boards getting involved in huge money deals and wondered if amateur GAA officials had the ability to carry through these financial machinations and, secondly, if the general public would go along.

GAA county boards have not been noticeable over the years for being led by top-class business people, or members with expertise in the world of finance. 'Let the shoemaker stick to his last' was the overriding sentiment. We now know that things have not worked out as smoothly as the GAA bosses thought five years ago. So far, none of the proposals have seen the light of day, with planning laws being a huge impediment, but from now on it will be the absence of finance that will decide.

The most recent example of that was the Portlaoise club's plans for a fabulous new facility, which was to be funded by the sale of their present ground just behind O'Moore Park. Planning brought that to a halt but not before the club had already committed to very substantial expenditure on the assumption of getting planning. The club is now in an extremely difficult position exacerbated, of course, by the the virtual collapse of the construction industry.

Many of the proposed transactions involving county grounds are sure to be postponed, at the very least, because most developers have no money now. So, what appeared to be a stampede to sell off town-centre GAA stadiums may well have been trampled at birth.

The grandiose plans for many of the traditional GAA grounds will stay on the drawing boards for quite a while yet and not many GAA people will be heartbroken because of that.

The whole question of GAA units, from small clubs to county boards and up to Croke Park, getting involved in massive expenditure on physical developments like stadia, floodlights, covered stands, etc, deserves a lot more analysis than it has got so far. Several major grounds around Ireland expensively equipped in the past 20 years are hardly ever filled or even half-filled. Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, might be filled once every two years.

Portlaoise has never been packed-out, to my knowledge. Neither has Casement Park, Kingspan Breffni Park nor the Gaelic Grounds. So, were the millions spent on these and other grounds really the best way of investing the GAA's money?

After all, of the larger GAA grounds on which money has been spent, only a handful can take crowds of around 50,000, and no less than three of these are in Munster -- Thurles, Limerick and Cork. There has been none in Connacht up to now, none in Leinster bar Croke Park and none in Ulster. What sort of national planning is that?

The recession may turn out to a blessing in disguise for the GAA if it helps officials to stick with the games a bit more and forget playing at being developers. There are clear signs of financial cutbacks throughout the GAA for 2009, such as Wexford Creamery recently dropping their sponsorship of the Wexford teams, a deal which had been running for nearly 20 years.

Maybe the depression arrived just in time.

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