Saturday 23 September 2017

Croker kept its eye on the ball as other sports sold their souls

Eoghan Corry: The very things that seemed to threaten the GAA, from professionalism to globalisation, are what have brought into sharp relief its great, unique amateur virtues

Clash of the ash: Patrick Horgan, Cork, escapes the challenge of Brendan Bugler, Clare, in the All-Ireland hurling final
Clash of the ash: Patrick Horgan, Cork, escapes the challenge of Brendan Bugler, Clare, in the All-Ireland hurling final

The green sward of An Aird, beneath Ben Nevis last Saturday was as good a place as any to reflect on how different things could have been for Ireland's national game.

Newtonmore and Kyles Athletic played out the climax of the shinty season. The passion and effort of the players would match anything we see on the hurling field. But nobody noticed.

The attendance was not recorded in any of the media reports, but 3,000 would be a good approximation.

BBC Two Scotland broadcast the event to a couple of tens of thousands more.

The attendance was one-fifth of those who attended the camogie final. It was half of what most GAA county boards can expect at their county championship finals over the coming weeks.

In Edinburgh or Glasgow, over a hundred miles to the south of An Aird and at least one sporting dimension away, the shinty final might as well not have existed.

Shinty and hurling share common ancestry, geographical factors and community allegiances. In the 1880s they both faced the same dilemma.

Sport was becoming a mass-market business. The media, at that stage magazines being spat out by the new hot metal printing presses, later the radio and TV broadcasters, were beginning to strike up a mutually profitable alliance with big sporting partners, finding in sports events a fruitful and never-ending supply of the heroes and heroics that its new readers needed.

Big sports got bigger audiences and revenue streams. Small, indigenous local sports all over the world got left behind.

The sport of shinty, played on the scenic fields of the Highlands, continues much the same as it did a century ago, a folksy local curiosity, staying proudly close to its community and true to its origins.

Against the odds, hurling managed to sneak into the big league, its attendances and TV audiences surpassing those of its better funded, professional rivals.

Moreover, it has stayed there. Astonishingly, it has done so while managing to be as true to its origins as shinty is.

There is no one reason why hurling succeeded where shinty did not. Lots of things could have killed it: the political hostility it faced in its early years, the flood of money that went into first soccer and then rugby, the globalisation of sports culture and the arrival of big broadcasters with their portfolios of exclusive TV rights.

The GAA fought hard for its share of the market and defended it as aggressively as any full-back in Hell's Kitchen.

Its peculiar twin existence with football as uniquely indigenous sports dominating sporting culture in just one island may have helped save it.

For many sports the big money, when it came, was as disruptive as it was profitable.

The TV money delivered by Rupert Murdoch and his would-be rivals caused breakaways, divisions, rule changes and scheduling dilemmas that have fractured the relationship between professional sports and the communities that nurtured it.

Whole sports have impaled themselves on the antenna of TV money. Cricket is counting the cost of too close a relationship with pay TV.

Rugby League's decision to go hide behind a pay wall lost it face, and much else, with its northern English working-class base.

Rugby Union is about to succumb to BT Sports, edging daily closer to its dream of "owning" a whole sport exclusively.

Part of hurling's appeal is that no TV mogul is ever going to own it.

We all own Croke Park. There are no Russian billionaires or Australian TV tsars to dictate terms to hurling folk.

While the GAA fights for the ball in the big game of sponsorship and TV rights, builds modern stadia and runs a hard-headed business, it has stayed true to the community from which it derives its strength and legitimacy.

It might have gone either way. Against the odds, the GAA avoided becoming marginalised and isolated in its villages as shinty has been.

Also against the odds, the GAA managed to steer its games away from the twin threats of pay-for-play and transfer systems.

The GAA often claims to be the largest amateur sporting organisation in the world and well it may be. It is certainly the only one without a functioning transfer system. Your county of allegiance cannot be traded easily. There is no transfer window because there are no transfers.

In a way, globalisation and TV have helped us appreciate what we have got.

They bring into sharp relief the contrast between what we see today and what we will be watching over the next six months in what the GAA used to call "rival codes".

Localisation is the new globalisation, in food, in branding, in experiential tourism. For one day, today, it is in sport as well.

And it doesn't get more local than the All-Ireland football or hurling final.

Irish Independent

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