Pressure to repay loans is likely to see volunteers losing interest
Hard-pressed clubs and supporters are feeling the pinch in a struggling economy, writes Damian Lawlor
B ELEAGUERED club and county board treasurers are being contacted up to three times a day by banks looking for debts to be repaid, according to three-time All-Ireland medal winner Tomás Mulcahy.
The Cork legend, a financial consultant, feels that volunteers all over the country are being placed under extreme duress over the state of their club or county's finances. "The hits always seem to come down line -- never up the line," he said.
"Fair enough, there are some county boards out there, I believe, that have so much in their kitties that they could even give some of the banks a bailout! But most boards and clubs are struggling badly.
"We will not have a treasurer left in the country to do a voluntary job while he is receiving two to three phone calls per day from a bank looking for outstanding monies. These are supposed to be enjoyable positions but don't tell me it is not happening. There will be a huge drop-off in board officers if we don't watch it."
Mulcahy is not in a position to give examples of struggling clubs or boards because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the situations they find themselves in.
"It's very sensitive and clubs don't want their business known. But look at all the developments throughout the country and in clubs. They all got sizeable grants but one of the conditions was that they had first to spend a sizeable amount of their own money before they could draw funds down. Most of this money was borrowed and clubs are struggling to pay back now because income levels have dropped considerably."
A recent survey of Carlow GAA clubs by the Nationalist newspaper showed that 17 outfits in the county were in debt.
Late last year, Mullahoran GAA club confirmed that it was more than €1.2m in debt after spending large sums on land purchases and high-tech developments at its club grounds, including a state-of-the-art sports complex.
Portlaoise GAA also incurred big debts, around €6.5m, after they tried to sell up and move grounds before planning difficulties scuppered their strategy.
And several other clubs contacted by the Sunday Independent confirmed that their finances are under considerable strain. One club which had its membership fee in the region of €40 has had to more than treble that to sustain itself. Another outfit has to find €60,000 to repay developers after looking into the prospect of selling their own grounds to move elsewhere, only to find it wasn't feasible. In a different county, a high-profile club invested in some house purchases during the boom only to see their value flounder and their debts increase.
"There is pressure out there, we know that, but, by and large, the trustee system operated by provincial councils and Croke Park has helped clubs in that regard," says GAA presidential candidate Liam O'Neill. "There is a major risk attached to clubs selling their old grounds and entering into a new area.
"I've been all over the country through various GAA task forces and committees and I know what they are going through," he says. "For example, one club has a monthly mortgage of €10,000 but is still keeping up with repayments. But in the 126 years of our history, the GAA has survived a variety of problems and difficulties and we will see this out too.
"But for those clubs in trouble we have to be inventive. GAA people are always prepared to find ways out of problems. Take physio costs; outside of managers they are the biggest expenses facing clubs. But have clubs considered pooling together to meet physio costs?
"I understand that volunteers are struggling. We had the same problem 10 years ago and we introduced a lot of full-time coaches and administrators to help them. Over the years, this, in turn, has placed more pressure on volunteers because there are more projects, schemes and incentives under way so we'll have to look at balancing that again now.
"We are still a vibrant organisation. We'll have to invoke cost-saving in some capacity right across the board but we'll work our way out of this. Like we always have," he added.
Mulcahy, meanwhile, believes that given the current situation, the GAA must not penalise clubs and boards should they reduce their ticket prices next season.
Speaking on the All Star tour in Kuala Lumpur last week, president Christy Cooney said the GAA was now looking at a reduction in prices, but warned the money would have to be made up somewhere.
But Mulcahy, who favours reducing ticket prices for provincial hurling and football championship matches to as low as €15 next season, points out that plenty of revenue is still being generated at the top through sponsorship, TV rights and marketing.
He says the GAA should be able to implement a low-cost, two-year pricing structure and still operate efficiently whilst not putting more burden on units down the ladder.
"An avid supporter pays €25-30 to see his team play in a Munster championship match on a Sunday and then goes to see an under 21 inter-county match on the following Wednesday night, forking out another €15-20.
"He then finds out that his club are playing in a double-header championship game on the Saturday after and is charged another 15 even though his club are playing the first match and he may not want to watch the second game. Double it if he has to bring a partner or two kids. By the way, these were all home games in his home town. Imagine if there are travel costs and back door games and this is happening every fortnight and you are a dual county and dual club?"
The Glen Rovers man says that by cutting the amount of televised inter-county matches next year the GAA clearly expects gate revenues to rise, but he feels that will only happen if the price is right.
He argues that for the next two years, while the country sorts itself out, the Association should lead the way. "All provincial games and qualifiers should be set at €15 max with provincial finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals at €20 maximum," he insists. "All-Ireland semi-final tickets should be priced at €35 and an All-Ireland final ticket should be set at a maximum of €50.
"Throw in your increased value family ticket and group club tickets with good promotion and awareness of price -- it will generate enough money for the GAA to survive but, more importantly, it will make a lot of people happy and there'll be massive goodwill. It makes more sense to me to have bigger numbers at games paying less money, than less people with bigger prices.
"It's time to take the bull by the horns and allow every man, woman and child the opportunity to get to see our games over next two years with a much reduced pricing structure. This is a great opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. And for board delegates preparing for conventions, now is the time to speak on behalf of all clubs and counties throughout the country. From the small village to the big town, price is everything these days.
"Survival and peace of mind is on everyone's doorstep at the moment and your life can be helped enormously by a stroll to the park or a spin in the train to see your team perform, knowing you can afford to do so. It's time to reward those who have filled many a stadium over the last number of years but, financially, are no longer in a position to do so."