To build or not to build
Most GAA stadiums lie idle for much of the year, but there are still plans for more, writes Damian Lawlor
W HEN Waterford County Board secretary Timmy O'Keeffe suggested his county should use Nowlan Park in Kilkenny as a home venue in the championship, it caused quite a stir.
Since they re-emerged as a major hurling force in the late 1990s, Waterford's 'home' ground has invariably been Semple Stadium as Walsh Park and Fraher Field are not capable of hosting capacity championship clashes.
This means they can't enter lucrative home and away arrangements with other Munster counties, and for 50,000 sell-outs this costs Waterford about €200,000 per game.
O'Keeffe, however, argued that undertaking a major development project to bring the grounds up to the standard required is not feasible. "Such a project would be a white elephant rarely full and a permanent millstone around our neck," he said.
"The concept of playing major provincial games outside the province is not new," the secretary added. Although the Munster Council appear opposed to this idea, O'Keeffe has not wavered in his view.
On the basis that the home county receives 15 per cent of gate receipts, a Tipp/Waterford game in Nowlan Park, for example, would reap €125,000 for the Déise County whereas they would receive nothing if the fixture were held in Páirc Uí Chaoimh with all the revenue instead being directed to the Cork County Board.
"Why should we be paying Cork €125,000 when we could have that revenue for ourselves? Let's think long and hard about this before deciding to throw out the baby with the bathwater.''
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of O'Keeffe's argument, however, was in speaking out against major investment at this time in Walsh Park or Fraher Field. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, the Waterford board had the opportunity to avail of government funding to upgrade Walsh Park but the proposal was put on the long finger.
There was also a plan for a new stadium to cater for 20-25,000 spectators as part of the Carraiganore Complex but again this foundered. It has left the county with two county grounds neither of which is up to present Munster championship standards. But O'Keeffe has shown great foresight in his comments on undertaking a massive investment project.
There are already far too many GAA stadiums in the country. Why would we need another one? Too many grounds have been built in too many places for too few reasons recently. Every county board wants a grand home, and that's understandable, but do they stop to acknowledge the high running costs for these stadiums?
Munster have five substantial venues, but how often does Killarney or Limerick see serious championship action? Ulster has Casement Park, Clones and seven other grounds able to hold crowds of over 20,000. More than enough.
Leinster is creaking with newly redeveloped grounds while the west is awake with redevelopment but not so with high-profile matches.
It was estimated recently that a sell-out championship game generates up to €10m for a local economy but how often does that happen in the likes of the Gaelic Grounds, Pearse Park or Hyde Park?
Would county boards be better off putting their money into coaching and development instead?
Tyrone's Mark Conway, one of the main forces behind his county's ongoing €9m Garvaghey centre development, agrees with O'Keeffe's sentiments about the costs involved in maintaining and filling a new stadium.
"It's enough that there would be one main ground in every province," Conway said. "Maybe it's Ulster arrogance, but we feel we have it right here. Back in the 1960s we focused on building club infrastructure properly and in the late 1990s we focused on Healy Park.
"Other Ulster counties did the same. We built from the bottom up but every one of the nine counties now has a ground that can cater for at least 20,000 people with Clones -- or even Croke Park -- hosting the bigger games. Look at Munster, if there's a game on in Thurles on any given day, there's a fair chance that Cork, Ennis, Killarney, and Limerick are all sitting empty. People have to look at the bigger picture -- the vast majority of Tyrone people would have no qualms about going to an Ulster championship match in Clones rather than staying in Omagh where people would be locked out because of capacity issues. There would be casualties and a lot of them would be women and kids -- they are the people we should be trying to attract to our games.
"You need to look outside the box -- it would be great for every county to have a stadium but they're not all needed. In Ulster, we played three provincial finals in a row at Croke Park. That's because we have the best provincial council in Ireland and they saw the bigger picture."
Many county boards, however, would not accept this argument. A new stadium reflects the grassroot investment and justifies all the hard work and funds raised by volunteers. Counties glow with pride and the satisfaction of having a splendid, new-look home venue.
But the reality is that at a time of great economic hardship this hardly makes sense. Last year, Mayo County Board saw its income streams plummet by €430,000 but they must still find a way to raise €730,000 next year to meet repayments on their recent McHale Park redevelopment.
It brings serious pressure to bear at a time when banks are already on the backs of clubs and county boards. No one doubts the great resource that is McHale Park, but the repayments are massive and it places a huge strain on the county. And Galway's Pearse Stadium is not too long refurbished either -- are both of these prime venues needed?
Kildare secretary Kathleen O'Neill has already warned clubs not to get "obsessed" by financial problems despite the current economic crisis. She expressed concern about "aggressive" banks putting cash-strapped clubs under pressure and feels that GAA units will be weighed down with financial matters. County boards should pay heed to that warning too.
The Armagh board is trying to avoid a situation like the one facing Mayo by selling naming rights for the £4.5m Athletic Grounds which is due to open in February.
Their neighbours Antrim will be the next to seek redevelopment of their home, but at least they will receive significant support from the Ulster Council and the Northern Ireland Executive to transform Casement Park into a 40,000 all-seater stadium.
Cork have been looking to revamp Páirc Uí Chaoimh for some time. It's estimated that the whole venture will cost more than €30m, but they have impressive financial reserves and a new 60,000-capacity stadium in the Docklands would be a massive boost for the area with ancillary developments like an all-weather pitch and centre of excellence. They have a strong case for pushing on with this project but other boards are not as well placed financially and remain intent on driving on with their plans despite the fact that their venues may see little or no action once finished.
Just recently, Louth county chairman Pádraic O'Connor emphasised his commitment to securing a modern county ground which will be located at either DKIT or Drogheda.
"When we get the plans for that and when they are done, we will put it to the clubs and let them decide. Of course, it comes down to finance, but it is our big priority in 2011," he said.
But Mark Conway believes a sense of perspective is required. "There is no need for all these stadia, but instead I would like to see county boards driving their training facilities and building excellence centres for all GAA people -- not just the elite. That's the way forward.
"We're spending £2.5m building on the next phase of our Garvaghey project in Tyrone next spring and while we're not set up to be an economical development group, we'll be making jobs for between 70-100 people. They'll be pouring concrete, tiling, joinery, plumbers. It will not last forever but we'll make a major contribution to a lot of households.
"Rather than slow things down in the economy we need to accelerate it. The country needs a lift and excellence projects like Garvaghey can make things happen, rather than new stadiums.
"We targeted £5,000 hard cash from private donators to help make it happen. We set a target of 100 such donations and looked at 50 clubs in Tyrone to come on board. We now sit with 153 patrons.
"This project is properly structured and if other projects around the country are like that I see no reason why county boards shouldn't forge ahead with their plans."
As well as upgrading Cusack Park, Clare are developing a €3m centre of excellence and although they're under financial pressure, none of their existing assets will be sold to fund the project.
"We haven't even discussed the possibilities of selling off assets," stressed chairman Michael O'Neill. "Obviously we have a certain amount invested in the development already. In conjunction with the upgrade of Cusack Park, we can only do it as funds become available. Croke Park has committed €1.8m; it falls back on us to generate the balance from our own resources or other avenues."
But how will these counties and those with bigger financial pressures manage if the 2011 economy struggles as much as the 2010 model? Banks are unwilling to show much patience and Croke Park will be reluctant to get involved, simply because if they help one county under siege, they'll have to help them all.
It would be wise to tread carefully. Or, as Timmy O'Keeffe suggests, maybe it would be wiser not to tread at all.
Sunday Indo Sport