Stepping on hallowed ground?
Lure of naming-rights revenue could tempt more counties to follow Mayo and Armagh funding drive
Some years ago, a Saturday morning business programme on RTE Radio 1 floated the idea that the GAA were about to sell the naming rights of Croke Park.
It was 2006 and, with the onset of soccer and rugby internationals being played in the stadium over a four-year period while Lansdowne Road was being transformed into the Aviva Stadium, it was time to cash in.
Croke Park could be nicknamed 'Pairc Tesco' they mused and for veracity they called in Robbie Kelleher, the former Dublin footballer and economist with Davy, to back up the notion that Croke Park would soon be up for auction.
It just so transpired that the broadcast date was April 1. An All-Ireland final being played in Tesco Park! Couldn't happen, could it? Not then, not now and most likely not ever. Not Croke Park anyway.
But after that it's an open market, it seems, the exact reverse of the policy regarding the use of the grounds. Even in such stark economic times there is money to be generated through the sale of naming rights to prominent grounds.
The question remains as to whether the emotional battle between names of local activists, Republican heroes of the past, priests, bishops and a small number of footballers can keep the potential financial windfall that goes with a branded stadium at bay for much longer.
It is quite a staggering statistic that just one county ground out of 32 has been branded. Kingspan's 10-year association with Breffni Park began in 2002 and looked like heralding the beginning of a new era of naming rights being attached to stadia as a serious revenue generator.
But the idea met with a cool reception at the top level. The GAA president between 2003 and 2006, Sean Kelly, was seen as something of a maverick in his policy ideas, but the issue of stadia naming rights was one he certainly wasn't comfortable with.
"We'll never go too far down that road in this association and it will certainly never happen in Croke Park," he said at the dedication of the Davin Stand and the Dineen Hill 16 End in 2006.
It was an attitude in headquarters that Laois found themselves up against in 2002 when they brought a potential three-year €150,000 deal to the table to rebrand their county grounds in Portlaoise 'Puma' O'Moore Park in a tie-up with the sportswear manufacturers.
The deal met with opposition because of an apparent conflict of interest at the time as Puma were involved commercially with the evolving Gaelic Players Association.
Laois officials at the time suspected an unease in Croke Park at the prospect of a ground named after a tribe, the O'Moores, being given the prefix of a global sportswear company. Additional funding for the O'Moore Park redevelopment softened the blow.
When Kingspan was attached to Breffni Park a short time later, the fit was easier because Kingspan were already the county sponsors and this was merely an additional marketing arm.
The trail of stadium branding went cold after that, but it now appears to be hotting up again. Mayo are stepping up their search again and Armagh have this week put out the invitation to companies to attach their name to the Athletic Grounds.
The branding of McHale Park in Castlebar, named after a local Archbishop of Tuam, has been held up by issues with residents and floodlighting.
"By next October we'd certainly be aiming to have something in place," said Mayo chief executive Sean Feeney. "The issues with the stadium held us up, but now that they have been resolved we'd hope to be able to press ahead."
Even in the current environment the ballpark figure for Mayo would probably be circa €400,000 to €500,000 for a 10-year agreement.
The reluctance to pursue branding for stadia may have its roots in a desire not to dilute the names already attached to county grounds. But for how long can county boards resist the necessity to generate more cash at the expense of the preservation of traditions?
A look at the 32 county grounds in Ireland shows that the majority are named after celebrated historical figures. From Roger Casement to Dr Douglas Hyde, Padraig Pearse to Charles Stuart Parnell and Countess Markievicz, there is no shortage of reminders about Ireland's struggle for independence.
GAA founder Michael Cusack is honoured twice and there are two saints, Conleth and Tiernach, who have grounds named after them. Against that background, Armagh are one of the few counties who don't have a ground name to provide them with an emotional wrestle as they seek to rebrand the Athletic Grounds.
Armagh have revamped the Athletic Grounds to the tune of £4.75m and have employed the services of marketing company mxbrandcom to sell their 'seats for life' and brand name.
The head of that project, Robert Park, has done extensive research into the naming rights of GAA stadia and is convinced there is a tendency to "undervalue the worth of Gaelic sport."
Park's company conducted research last summer that suggested the 'advertising equivalent value' of a named stadium was some £400,000 per month.
"That's just one measurement that our industry would use," said Park. "We looked at it in the course of one month last summer in terms of mentions in national and local media, TV, radio and online, using a media monitoring agency and figured that £400,000 was the value. Normally the industry would divide that figure by four to six, so if you divided it by four, the figure would be £100,000 which is a very decent return."
Quite why more county boards have not sought to brand their county grounds is not something that Park says he can easily explain, but the existing names, he feels, may be a barrier.
"In some cases there is a poignancy there that makes it that bit more difficult. There is an emotional attachment that is difficult to avoid. But these things can happen slowly in some sports. It's only 20 years since jersey sponsorships were permitted, so maybe we will see more grounds branded in the future."