Thursday 8 December 2016

Lots of sweeping changes ahead of this new broom

Damian Lawlor

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Donnchadh Walsh and Jonny Cooper clash in the All-Ireland football final. Picture: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Walsh and Jonny Cooper clash in the All-Ireland football final. Picture: Sportsfile
Captain John Griffin lifts the Christy Ring Cup on behalf of Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile.

A new season is upon us. Some counties have already run up eight weeks of pre-season training and there is as much activity under way in the boardrooms.

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Over the coming weeks injured players will return, squads will make early assessments on new management teams and vice versa, while budgets, grants, broadcast rights and various other contracts all need immediate attention.

Increasingly, players are no longer content to sit back and go with the flow. Even at this early juncture the issue of blood testing in the Association is going to cause plenty of debate and there will be strong opposition to it. Players are tired too of the problems around fixture congestion and having to serve so many masters.

With all this in mind - and with the new season starting in earnest this afternoon - we take a look at some critical areas of focus for the year ahead.

1 Director Of Hurling appointment

This is generally expected to be completed by the end of 2016 with the terms of reference centred on developing the game in the weaker counties.

Traditionally, the business end of the hurling championship has been confined to just a few, with Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary way out ahead of the rest in terms of titles. And while the likes of Clare and Waterford look well positioned to challenge the status quo, what is more urgent is the development that Laois, Westmeath, Antrim, Carlow, Kerry and Kildare desperately crave. Some of these counties already receive an annual €50,000 help-out from Croke Park, but it's nowhere near enough.

Past experience shows that when men like John Meyler, Eamon Kelly and Cheddar Plunkett take charge of these second-tier teams, the progress is almost immediate. When those coaches and managers move on, though, momentum is lost. A new director of hurling must consolidate the good work that has taken place in these emerging counties. But just as quickly, the new director needs to find a path forward for these teams, many of whom are lacking the level of know-how and strategic vision from within.

The calibre of personnel the GAA could turn to to take on this difficult job is impressive. The position will attract plenty of interest and should be a significant development this year.

2 Broadcast Rights Deal

The GAA's current three-year deal with broadcasters is now in its last year. Thus, negotiations for a place in the next arrangement will begin early this year and there will be massive interest in what's up for grabs, all of which is music to the ears of Croke Park's commercial department.

RTé is the main rights holder and after suffering major losses to its sports schedule, such as the Six Nations, they will be intent on retaining as much of the coverage as they possibly can. The GAA will be keen for them to do so, too, as they reach so many viewers and offer high-quality coverage and analysis.

But the ante is likely to be upped even further this year.

Sky Sports has reached the end of its three years as a broadcast partner, after much criticism of the GAA for moving away from solely free-to-air channels. If they seek another contract, it will be interesting to see how HQ reacts.

TV3 was very disappointed to lose its deal last time out but on the back of a successful Rugby World Cup and having secured the prestigious Six Nations rights, the station has momentum. They will try to reclaim some of the ground they lost last time.

Setanta Sports, too, looks to be in a stronger position to bid now that it has been taken over by Eir. The station has been working hard for many years to try to get a foot on the ladder and its toil could finally get some reward when the new deal is announced.

There is bound to be an enhanced digital media package this time around, while the radio rights could be shared between RTé, Newstalk and Today FM among others. It will be of huge interest, not just to viewers and punters, but to those within the GAA, to see what way the rights are shared out after the controversy the last time.

3 Meaningful steps to end burnout

Could this finally be the year that the way is paved for a number of measures to help young players to thrive? None of these proposals will be implemented this year, but Congress or Central Council could approve them and start the process in a meaningful way.

Top of the list of recommendations coming from the top table are the abolition of the under 21 football championship and the introduction of extra-time in All-Ireland finals.

They were mooted in a paper, 'Player Overtraining and Burnout and the GAA Fixtures Calendar', which was compiled by GAA director-general Páraic Duffy.

That document concerns two principal issues: players between the ages of 17 and 21 who are being asked to train too much, to play too many matches for too many teams and are afforded too little time for rest and recovery. And it will also address the lack of "a fair, evenly-distributed and planned schedule of club matches throughout the year due to the scheduling of inter-county fixtures".

A summary of proposals includes: Change the inter-county minor grade from under 18 to under 17 [from 2018].

Discontinue the under 21 football inter-county championship [from 2018].

Discontinue the AFL Division One semi-finals.

Establish in rule that players, who are not in the match-day panel of 26 must be available to their clubs [from 2017].

Bring forward the senior All-Irelands by two weeks with the football final played on the first Sunday in September and the hurling two weeks previously [from 2017].

Play extra-time at the end of all drawn championship matches [from 2017].

4 Pump up the promotion

The GAA has become a year-round operation as far as the media is concerned. Even when the inter-county season ends, there are awards ceremonies, player heaves, resignations, culls, sponsorship launches and club games to keep the Association in the public eye.

However, strategic positioning with sponsorship partners and proactive marketing will be needed more than ever in 2016 with the European soccer championships and the Rio Olympics also fighting for public attention.

There is, of course, room for all in a sports-mad nation but there are a couple of points that need to be remembered.

We have no idea how exciting or otherwise the European finals will be, but we have a fair notion that the Gaelic football championship could be similar to ones of recent vintage - strong on defence and power, but light on skill.

The hurling championship of 2015, it must be noted, wasn't exactly free-flowing either. A fear of losing has crept into both in recent years and with such intense competition coming from other codes, the GAA marketers will have to be on top of their game. And they must hope that their sponsorship partners are too.

In 1990, it was feared that the GAA would suffer after the exploits of the Irish soccer team, but instead hurling and football soared in popularity. There are no guarantees. Croke Park will be acutely aware that punters could switch off and stay away should the quality on view not be up to scratch.

5 Proper commemoration of 1916

All the stops were pulled out when the Queen came to Croke Park and expect the same to happen with the 1916 centenary celebrations.

The GAA will ask an artistic director to oversee an event to be hosted in conjunction with the Allianz League finals on Sunday, April 24, the same date as the start of the Rising.

It's understood that all the clubs will be represented in this celebration, which will reflect the role of the GAA in this period and in a modern Ireland. The event is being planned in conjunction with the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme and it's a huge opportunity for the GAA to reflect on its shared past and also look to the future. As a grassroots community organisation, with its own place in history, the GAA is a very important part of the country's narrative.

There is an obvious link in this period with the activities of the GAA and a fitting commemoration of a hugely important landmark date in Irish history is necessary.

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