Cost cutting v Slash and burn
The GAA have a choice to make but they can't continue to expect high standards on the field if they are going to make serious reductions off it
We'll begin with a small story. After a county team played a qualifier game in Croke Park last summer, 35 meals were ordered and paid for at a hotel on the outskirts of Dublin.
However, only eight players turned up for the meal and the county board watched the guts of €500 go up in smoke.
In one sense, it was an isolated incident. The team had lost the game, some of the squad had decided to stay in Dublin, while the rest just made their own way home. In another sense though, it provided a neat encapsulation of some of the serial wastage on team expenditure.
"The amount of food that is ordered for players and is not consumed is something else," says GAA presidential candidate Liam O'Neill. "Obviously guys have to be fed, but I'd say if we tightened up on those kind of areas, we would bring about huge change."
In the current economic crisis, many counties have already been forced to take a more pragmatic approach to making cutbacks.
One county has recently renegotiated terms with their team caterer and has already shaved considerable costs off their projected budget for the coming season.
However, the same county has also radically cut back on their physio expenses.
"We all accept that cutbacks have to be made," says an experienced player from that county. "But our physio situation at the moment is a joke. We only have one physio and anybody who is injured or carrying a knock has to go to him that night.Yet players are only getting about 10 minutes treatment because the physio has so many to deal with.
"I can see guys breaking down big time as the season continues."
Already, there is a key issue here for the GAA. After Colm Keys recently revealed in the Irish Independent that over €19m was spent on preparing inter-county teams in 2010, Tommy Lyons questioned whether some teams really need such big entourages as back-up.
This line of thinking is not exactly new. In his address to the Connacht Council convention last February, provincial secretary John Prenty understandably expressed his concern that it cost almost €3m to train inter-county teams from Connacht in 2009.
"Almost all teams now have a coterie of different types of experts involved with them, drawn from physiotherapists (two or three), dieticians, sports psychologists, athletes, training experts, etc," wrote Prenty.
"Most of those have been drawn in from other codes and seem to come at enormous expense. An industry has been set up around county teams and I would have to ask, is it paying off? Have we lost the plot? Maybe we should look at the programmes being adopted by the successful teams in hurling and football and return to our core values."
On one hand, Prenty made some valid points. Some teams have forked out lavishly and excessively on team "preparations" in recent years. But Prenty's general point, and to a lesser degree Lyons', on the influence of outside expertise, and the subsequent costs, is not that straightforward. If Tipperary's and Cork's All-Ireland success last year -- and the ultra-professional environment they both created -- highlighted anything, it is that you need all the help and expertise you can get to compete with the top teams.
This is the key conundrum for the GAA because they can't suddenly expect a return to socialist values in the capitalist state they have created. The corporate climate that now exists through TV and sponsorship deals, and which has driven the popularity of inter-county games through the roof, was inevitably going to lead to the demand for excellence. In fact, it is that excellence which has created the corporate climate.
If you study the teams that have most consistently and seriously pushed the top counties in hurling and football this past decade, most of those teams have adopted the most professional structures possible.
In the last 20 years, the two most important results in Gaelic football were Down's All-Ireland success in 1991 -- because it opened the door for the Ulster teams -- and Clare's Munster final win against Kerry a year later -- because it showed the weaker counties what was possible with hard work and creating the right training environment. It was no surprise that both results occurred just after team sponsorship was introduced into the GAA in 1991.
It is the proper training structures and back-up services which made so many counties competitive -- and which has helped them remain competitive.
Monaghan are the ideal example in recent years. They may not have won an Ulster title, but when Seamus McEnaney first took over in late 2004, he inherited a team that had been dumped out of the Ulster championship by 15 points and then beaten in the first round of the qualifiers. During his time, McEnaney created an elite training and preparation environment and incrementally turned Monaghan into a top-10 force.
In Gaelic football now, the mid-tier teams have never been more competitive. Of course, there has to be a balance struck in the current climate, but how can you expect some sides to compete with those top teams if they don't have anything like the same support structures because of serious cutbacks?
In one sense, there is the potential here for the stronger counties to pull even further ahead in the coming years.
"In hurling, you're competing against the likes of Tipperary who can throw whatever money they like to try and win an All-Ireland," says Offaly county board chairman Pat Teehan. "If we were to spend that type of money, the men in white coats would be coming to bring us away.
"Yet, if you want your teams to compete at the top level, you have to give them the best possible preparation. Being realistic then, we cannot give our teams what the top counties can provide. We just can't. It would be ideal if you could put a cap on expenditure, but it would be impossible."
However, Liam O'Neill believes that could be achieved with more transparency. "We're not all being honest on how much we're spending on teams," he says. "If we all were, then we could find better ways of doing it.
"If everyone knew how much everything was costing, you could put it all on the table. Say you knew your budget for the year was going to be €500,000, you could analyse where the money could be spent differently. I think you'd then find a huge change in how the money is being spent."
There are some areas and angles which could also be pragmatically explored and examined.
"In a sports science sense, it makes absolutely no sense for 32 counties to be heading off doing their own thing," says Pat Daly, Croke Park's head of coaching and games. "It should be possible on a provincial or regional basis to make the expertise available to teams without them all having to incur the same costs.
"The area of diet and nutrition for example is huge, but all of the teams don't need to have a dietician. That information can be made generally available. And it could be the same with psychology, physiology and so on.
"Teams will say: 'We want our own specialist'. But where you have duplication, you'll have fragmentation and eventually you'll have stagnation. So, there is a case for an essential service provider, where that expertise is made available without every team heading off with a team of experts."
As things currently stand, running county teams is very costly. In general though, it provides a good return on the investment because the money is being invested, not spent. Looking after the top players is the best way to have county teams that young players will aspire to represent.
The inter-county championships now are also mostly populated by players who think, behave and perform like elite athletes. By any reasonable understanding of the term, top-class GAA players ceased to be amateurs years ago. They deserve to be treated as the elite and they expect to prepare in an elite environment.
There is no doubt that spending and costs need to be curtailed. But the key now is making the distinction between sensible cost-cutting and just slashing budgets. Because, if the GAA think the answer is to completely turn back, they are going firmly in the wrong direction.