Saturday 24 September 2016

Joe Brolly: GAA's Margaret Thatcher approach does not encourage participation

Joe Brolly

Published 22/11/2015 | 17:00

GAA's Matgaret Thatcher approach is wrong
GAA's Matgaret Thatcher approach is wrong

The reason the GAA has gotten into such a mess over the last 10 years is because we have blindly copied the professional sports model. The failure to understand the bleeding obvious fact that it has no relevance to what we do is mystifying.

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It came about because of a leadership vacuum and a failure to set out a fit-for-purpose modern strategy. In this vacuum, the GPA and the cartel of vested interests (sponsors, sports psychologists, paid managers, etc) has thrived. Commercialism has become rampant and, up until now, the GAA has simply gone with the flow. The thoroughly discredited 'trickle down' philosophy has become our cornerstone.

The two most notable recent exponents of 'trickle down' were Margaret Thatcher (pause to spit on the ground), and Ronald Reagan, the fantasist and movie actor who became the US president.

Their loopy creed was that if you let the rich get richer, remove and reduce taxation and allow these tycoons to flourish like never before, their riches would somehow trickle down and improve the standard of living of the chambermaids and checkout girls. Instead, it created mass unemployment, destroyed public services and ruined social cohesion.

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This idea that by focusing the rewards on the elite, it would trickle down and help everybody is the myth peddled by professional sport. When Richard Scudamore unveiled the English Premier League's new £5bn TV rights deal, he went all Deepak Chopra on it, speaking dreamily about how this would revolutionise the game and benefit everyone.

At the time of writing, only one Premier League club pays its non-footballing staff the living wage, and the most recent UK government report highlighted the fact that grassroots facilities and coaching in England is the worst in Europe.

Amazingly, the penny has not dropped with the GAA hierarchy, that encouraging elitism does not increase participation. It is of course the cornerstone of the GPA's philosophy, since they get a slice of the pie. Take the Sky deal as an example. Páraic Duffy, in good faith, took the view that this exposure would strongly promote our games.

The GPA lauded the agreement. Their spokesman, Seán Potts, enthused that the international element to the deal - with Sky Sports showing 20 matches a year in the UK and Channel 7 showing 45 in Australia (they dumped the games altogether within six months) - changed the face of what the GAA is and what it can be.

They are very fond of high-sounding phrases which are vaguely impressive but mean nothing, no doubt a by-product of all the self-help mumbo-jumbo they peddle.

Sky TV camera at Nowlan Park: ‘The idea that Sky would somehow promote the games... was of course tosh’
Sky TV camera at Nowlan Park: ‘The idea that Sky would somehow promote the games... was of course tosh’

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Potts articulated the fallacy with the following gibberish: "The way we would see it is that any move that increases the exposure of the games and our players is very welcome. We see it as harnessing more platforms for the sport and allowing it to compete with other sports." Gobbledegook.

This perfectly illustrates the fantasy that has been at the heart of the GAA's thinking. It is a fantasy because it is an established fact that watching elite sports emphatically does not increase participation. A systematic review by the British Medical Journal after the London Olympics concluded that "there is no evidence that watching the Olympics has resulted in an increase in participation."

The House of Commons Education Select Committee reached exactly the same conclusion, deriding the idea of an 'Olympic legacy' and concluding that what stimulates participation is voluntary effort, resources, coaches and facilities. (Which is precisely what makes the GAA work.)

The point is that the obsession with the county game is entirely self-defeating. As the renowned economist Margaret Heffernan noted in her remarkable book A Bigger Prize, "Trickle down doesn't work in sport. Focusing resources, rewards and celebrity on the top few doesn't help anyone."

Before the Sydney Olympics, the usual breathless myths were repeated by the politicians and sporting bodies that this would be a massive stimulus to participation and result in a transformation in the health of the nation, blah, blah, blah.

The truth was somewhat more sobering. The 'Socio-Economic study of the impact of the 2000 Sydney Olympics' in 2001, commissioned by the Australian parliament, concluded "the only pastime that was more popular after the Games than before them was watching the TV."

The idea that Sky would somehow promote the games was repeated by the GAA hierarchy. The GPA knew the truth but went along, since they get a slice of the pie, shrewd capitalists that they are. It was of course tosh.

To a non-GAA audience, our games are a novelty like topless darts or mud wrestling. The English viewer who tweeted, 'No wonder they have two doctors behind the goalposts' said it all. My children and their friends love watching WWE on telly. This has not yet led to an explosion in wrestling in the greater Belfast area.

Participation - as noted by the House of Commons Select Committee - is increased solely by volunteer coaches, administrators and honest toil. As the GAA journalist Seán Moran wrote recently, the only way to promote the GAA is to concentrate on the clubs. The point is that we must concentrate on promoting ourselves to ourselves.

Locked into this self-defeating cycle, the leadership have lavished money on the GPA, a free-market limited company (the current deal is worth €8.75m over five years), who in turn have enriched a handful of elite players.

No wonder their recently unveiled championship format contains 40 extra games at a time when burnout and elitism is crucifying the game. The banner headline of their proposal, set out in red capitals, is "THE PROPOSED NEW STRUCTURE WILL IMPACT POSITIVELY ON THE REVENUES GENERATED FROM SENIOR INTER-COUNTY FOOTBALL COMPETITIONS" before going on to estimate the hierarchy can squeeze an extra €1.7m in revenue per annum by adopting this.

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There is a chink of light. In Páraic Duffy's recently published discussion paper on rebalancing the game in favour of the clubs, he makes an admission that gives us hope.

Up until now, Páraic has followed 'trickle down'. In the report, he writes: "The important promotional value of the September All-Irelands that I advocated previously now seems to me outweighed by the magnitude of the problem of compressed and rushed club championships . . . and the unfairness of this on club players in these counties."

Again, while it might seem to the neutral observer nothing more than a statement of the bleeding obvious, it is possible that it marks the beginnings of a realisation that 'trickle down', for the GAA, is a bogus and self-defeating philosophy.

USADA's landmark 2012 report on sport in America, 'True Sport. What we stand to lose in our obsession to win', found that concentrating resources on elite athletes doesn't help anyone, encourages an unhealthy win-at-all-costs philosophy and has dramatic negative effects on participation.

As USADA's Travis Tygart put it: "Fostering elitism and capturing TV space for elite competition definitely draws viewers and revenue dollars. But it does nothing to build participation at grassroots level, leading to lifetime involvement in sport."

Which is, our leaders might reflect, the entire purpose of the GAA.

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