Thursday 27 October 2016

From footballers in boxers to big-bucks sponsorship deals

The GAA has come a long way from the days when every rule began with 'No', writes Colm Keys

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

An aerial view of Croke Park. Dublin. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
An aerial view of Croke Park. Dublin. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

When Kerry footballers and their manager Mick O'Dwyer stripped off for a photo beside a Bendix washing machine that would appear in the Sunday papers on the morning of the 1985 All-Ireland final, it was considered a shot across the bows of the GAA's strict rules governing its amateur status.

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The deal was reputedly worth £5,000 (€6,350) for the Kerry team holiday fund, but the idea that a squad could dip their toes in such choppy commercial waters was anathema to the guardians of the rule book.

Prohibition prefaced almost every page in those days and conflict regularly arose.

Three years earlier, the same Kerry team had tested the fabric of the rules by wearing Adidas jerseys throughout the 1982 championship, against GAA policy too, because Adidas was not considered an Irish manufacturer.

In 1976, the "three stripes" controversy erupted prior to the Munster football final when the Cork squad insisted on wearing Adidas jerseys, prompting subsequent suspensions, though dual players still involved with the hurlers that summer were given dispensation.

Commerce and amateur GAA players were routinely denied a matchmaker.

Some players with farming backgrounds did feature in product-related advertising campaigns in the 1980s.

Galway and Wexford hurlers Joe Cooney and Tony Doran were among those championing the fight against fluke and worm disease.

The All-Star scheme was sponsored by Carrolls and latterly Bank of Ireland. Insurance firm Royal Liver had an association with the leagues, but the surface was barely being scratched three decades ago.

If deals were being done with retail or industry, they were done privately. The GAA was reluctant to relax any of its rules on personal earning capacity, sponsorship or playing gear over fears of a drift towards a form of professionalism.

However, the 1990s began to shape the landscape that exists today.

First, sponsors' logos were allowed on jerseys at Congress in 1991, then the football and hurling championships were sponsored, followed quickly by a broadening of the live TV broadcast package.

By 1997, there were recommendations that players could benefit from endorsements, and by 1999 the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) was in place.

All the time, the continuing redevelopment of Croke Park was firing fresh confidence throughout the association.

"There was no reason why it should have taken that long," said former GAA commercial director Dermot Power. "The market would have taken it long before that. There wasn't the drive in Croke Park for it."

The agreement reached with Bank of Ireland and Guinness to sponsor the football and hurling championships in 1994 and 1995 gave the GAA two of the biggest hitters at the time.


"I think there was a recognition that hurling needed a partner that was very marketing-orientated," said Mr Power.

"Guinness in the early days stepped up to the mark. Some of the early advertising was textbook, playing on the theme 'Nobody said it was going to be easy'. It wasn't. The first time they went up it was turned down by a vote."

A toilet break by one potentially supportive delegate during a crucial 1994 vote is thought to have prevented the Guinness sponsorship, worth £1m (€1.27m), going through initially, but it was passed a year later.

Power always feels the Croke Park redevelopment emboldened a more ambitious app-roach to sponsorship.

"It was a catalyst because that gave the GAA a new confidence," he said. "It realised that it has this incredible brand.

"One of the great things about the GAA is that it generally does the right thing at the right time, having mulled over it for a bit. It probably could have done it earlier, but when it did it had much greater support within the membership."

With more money from sponsorship and TV rights it was inevitable that players would respond, and the GPA was formed with then Dublin footballer Dessie Farrell very much at the forefront.

By then, the GAA had loosened the clauses on individual sponsorship but was at odds with the GPA for almost a decade until a formal arrangement was reached.

"You see the benefit now with the GPA agreement, that the two work together and the market has grown considerably. But there was always a market for the good guy," said Mr Power.

Sponsorship of the flagship championships and TV rights were broken up into packages, the GAA employing London firm Oliver and Ohlbaum to advise on TV negotiations as TV3 got a slice of the action in 2008, breaking the RTE monopoly.

The net result is that the inter-county game is much bigger 30-odd years on from the Bendix ad and financial benefits have trickled down to most units.

However, while professionalism has remained at arm's length, the isolation from the club game is greater than ever, with no sign of the gap closing.

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