'There's a 10-year programme of work to do at Croke Park. It's expensive - it could cost up to €60m'
In an exclusive interview, Croke Park stadium and commercial director Peter McKenna tells Martin Breheny why the refurbishment of the GAA's 'cash cow' is money well spent
The GAA is facing a bill of up to €60m for refurbishment work in Croke Park over the next ten years. It comes after €1m was spent on painting the roof of the stands to prevent corrosion of the massive structure.
"There comes a time with any building when you've got to carry out substantial repairs and maintenance. We do that all the time here but over the years bigger things come along. That's what happened with the roof in Croke Park," says Peter McKenna, GAA stadium and commercial director.
Croke Park's proximity to the sea caused the issues with the roof, which required specialist painting.
"Croke Park is effectively in a maritime environment. We're a lot closer to the sea than you might think. It means there's a lot of salt in the wind, which causes a certain amount of damage," explains McKenna.
"All the steel work had to be painted because of the potential corrosion by the salty wind. It cost €1m and took a year to do as it was a very difficult job because of the size and scale. However it, if we hadn't done it, the cost would be much higher later on."
Over €16m has been spent on overall refurbishment in recent years, including the roof-painting, major upgrades of corporate boxes and their environs, and new flooring at various levels.
It's now estimated that a further €60m will have to be spent over the next decade.
"We got a bit of an awakening when we inspected the roof," says McKenna. "That work wasn't something that had been on our radar. So we took in a group of experts who examined every single area of the ground from concrete to seats, escalators, lifts, kitchens - in fact just about everything.
"It took them six months to complete and they have told us what life is left in everything in the stadium. They also identified what we needed to prioritise and have given us a 10-year programme of work to do. It's expensive - it could cost up to €60m.
"It's a salutary lesson to everyone who is building a facility, big or small. The capital cost is only the first hurdle - you also have to have a reserve put aside to maintain it properly. Otherwise you will be hit with a massive bill later on.
"Even when we're finished the refurbishment in 10 years' time, more work will have to be done. That's the way it is with a big building and this really is a massive campus."
Despite the large outlay required, the GAA are content that it's well within their capabilities.
"As long as we're earning the sort of income currently being generated by Croke Park, this is very affordable. We're prudent in how we do things," says McKenna.
There is no choice except to spend whatever it takes to keep the 82,300-capacity facility up to the highest possible standard, not least because it's in competition with other venues for conferences and other major events.
"That's one of the reasons we have spent so much money on it over the last few years. It was important to do that to put ourselves in a better position to host conferences etc," says McKenna.
"We wanted to make sure that when you come in here, you get a sense that it's the hub of Gaelic Games from the moment you walk into the lift. We want to show that you're getting a lot more than just a room - you're buying into the unique history of the place.
"There's something special about coming here for a conference and looking out on a ground that has such a famous history. It's a lovely environment and, on top of that, we have excellent car parking facilities."
Croke Park generated income of €24.5m last year, returning a profit of €9.2m, of which €7m was paid to Central Council, the body responsible for day-to-day running of the Association.
It's a long way from the early days of the new Millennium when Croke Park was a severe drain on the GAA's finances. Indeed, there were fears that it might be a long-term milestone, but the opposite has turned out to be the case.
"Croke Park has become one of the great national investments," says McKenna. "The GAA borrowed heavily and there were plenty of people who thought it was risky at the time, but now we have a real cash cow producing excellent revenues.
"The objective is to generate as much as we can in a way that's consistent with GAA values and recycle it back through the organisation to help fund other projects, whether it be for grounds, games development or the many and varied other areas of activity.
"For example, this summer's Cúl camps catered for over 136,000 youngsters, which is phenomenal. It's heavily subvented but we can only do things like that if we generate the necessary revenues and Croke Park has to play a part in that.
"The same goes for appointing games development officers.
"Over 82pc of everything the GAA earns is redistributed throughout the organisations.
"That's why some of the comments about GAA money would leave you be bemused. In fact some of it is verging on the slanderous."
All the corporate box and premium ticket schemes are currently fully subscribed. McKenna tells a story of an 88-year-old man from the midlands who arrived in Croke Park with €12,500 in cash to renew his premium tickets.
"He travelled up by train with a bag of money," he says. "That's the level of commitment he had to securing his tickets. We've found that to be the case too for so many other individuals, and thankfully the support from companies has remained very strong too."
It's estimated that around €3m per year could be generated by selling the naming rights for Croke Park but McKenna is opposed on the basis that the stadium's rich history should not be compromised in any way.
"In my view, selling naming rights for Croke Park would be a step too far from a commercial point of view.
"There's too much at stake philosophically in terms of who and what we are as an organisation," he says.
With that major revenue stream off the agenda, the pursuit of alternatives continues all the time. Leasing the Croke Park Hotel, which the GAA built and which acts as a major aid in acquiring conference business, brings in around €1.4m per year, while other initiatives are being planned to ensure that the number of people who pass through the stadium Park every year matches - or even surpasses - the 1.44 million figure in 2015.
Apart from the games and conferences, the Museum and Skyline Tours are also big attractions.
"On top of all that, we're constantly looking for ways of doing things more cost-effectively," adds McKenna. "Is there other business we can get? How can we improve our margins? The easy thing would be to raise prices but then you lose volume. We have made a lot of efficiency changes in recent years.
"We can also say that we have one of the greenest environments ever. None of our waste goes to landfill - it's all processed in other environmentally-friendly ways. So if you're coming to Croke Park for a conference or whatever and are wondering what you carbon footprint is, you can rest assured that out stadium is probably the greenest in the world."
Footprints of a different type were an issue some years ago when a major controversy arose after the announcement that a ban on supporters coming onto the pitch after All-Ireland finals would be implemented for safety reasons.
Many high-profile figures opposed it, claiming that the traditional stampede was part of the big day experience. However, it was also fraught with danger in an increasingly litigious era where personal injury claims are on the increase.
"We had to win that one. Here was a high-risk, uncontrolled environment where anything could happen," says McKenna, who has been stadium director for 15 years.
"We were putting ourselves in an area of indefensible risk. We knew we had a problem so we had to work through it.
"We couldn't go into court to defend a claim and say we didn't know the risk was there.
"We would have been crucified. Apart from the safety issue, the way we do things now works so much better for the winners and the losers when the pitch is left to them. I think we've seen that repeatedly over recent years."
Croke Park and McKenna were among the winners at this year's international Stadium Business Awards, underlining the success of the operation in Dublin 3.
However, the challenge to make it better remains. McKenna identifies "new technology-driven enhancements to the stadium experience," as one of the priorities.
"We are committed to making Croke Park the benchmark for next generation fan engagement. We will be putting big effort into that," he says.
For all its ancillary activities, the main business in Croke Park will always revolve around happens on the pitch.
Maintaining the surface in top class condition is an expensive business. As an example of the cost involved in maintain it in pristine condition, pitch lights to encourage growth at this time of year cost €10,000 per week to run if switched on all the time,
"Spending money on the pitch will always be a priority for us," says McKenna.
"It's all about the players and having the very best surface we can provide for them. We're happy that we're doing that and will continue to do so."