Tuesday 20 March 2018

A game of two halves... the two-tier GAA system

For most who devote the best years of their lives to Gaelic football and hurling, the rewards come simply from playing the sports they love. But for an elite few there are generous financial benefits. As we head into another season of Championship action can the GAA sustain this two-tier system?

U-21 hurling stars, from left, Shane O'Donnell, Clare, Cian Lynch, Limerick, Conor McDonald, Wexford, and Cian O'Callaghan, Dublin, pictured at the launch of the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U-21 All-Ireland Championship at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
U-21 hurling stars, from left, Shane O'Donnell, Clare, Cian Lynch, Limerick, Conor McDonald, Wexford, and Cian O'Callaghan, Dublin, pictured at the launch of the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U-21 All-Ireland Championship at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
Colm Cooper 6/10/2014...Lucozade With Colm Cooper, Parnells GAA Club, Dublin 6/10/2014 Colm Cooper Mandatory Credit ?INPHO/Morgan Treacy
John Meagher

John Meagher

Wicklow is not known as a hurling stronghold, but on Tuesday nine of the country's best young players descended on Glendalough for a photo-shoot with a difference.

With the waves of the lake lapping at their boots and the splendour of the valley framed behind them, they happily posed for publicity shots at the launch of the Bord Gáis Energy U-21 Hurling Championship.

The date had been carefully chosen to coincide with the end of the college year when players - or Bord Gáis Energy Ambassadors, as the sponsor likes to call them - would be available to tog out in the Garden County and sport special hurleys bearing the logo of the energy company.

All were put up in a hotel the night before the shoot and were obliged to undergo media training provided by Pembroke Communications, the PR agency working on the account. Pembroke MD Mick O'Keeffe, a former Dublin footballer, says several of the players wouldn't have had to deal with the media before so the training is gratefully received. He won't divulge how much they were paid, but confirms that each received the same fee, irrespective of whether it was Shane O'Donnell of reigning U-21 champions Clare or Ryan McCambridge of perennial outsiders Antrim. "There is a huge level of commitment from GAA players today," O'Keeffe says.

"The training schedule is very close to what one would expect of professional sport, so if there's an opportunity for a player to make some money from that talent, that's a good thing. And there are certainly more opportunities than before as increasing numbers of brands look to the GAA, especially in the Championship months."

Last weekend saw the football Championship proper kick off with Donegal beating Tyrone in the pick of the ties, plus wins elsewhere for Galway, Laois, Longford and Westmeath. This Sunday sees the hurling championship get underway, with Clare taking on Munster rivals Limerick.

With the cross-channel football season winding down and domestic rugby taking a breather, the next few months will provide the ideal shop window for top GAA players to show off their wares in an environment largely uncluttered by other sports.

And with reports that a small band of inter-county players are essentially giving up their day jobs to focus on winning an All-Ireland medal this year, the notion of being professional in all but name has become engrained.

One would certainly have had the impression this week that top players are exploiting their marketability. Bernard Brogan - the poster boy of Gaelic football - was taking part in a photo-shoot for Volkswagen (he is a brand ambassador for the German automotive giant) and his older brother, Alan, who is also a former footballer of the year, was talking part in a SuperValu initiative to provide kit for kids.

Nobody could look at the photo of either Dublin forward and be under any illusion that they were not working for the brands, so prominent were the VW and SuperValu logos.

Sean Potts, head of communications for the Gaelic Players Association, says high-profile campaigns that generate considerable media coverage can be worth in the region of €100,000, using a marketing measurement tool known as 'advertising value equivalency'.

"So over this month, the GPA and GAA activity around its events and its presence in the papers was over €1m," he says.

The GPA looks after the interests of some 2,100 inter-county players across both codes, but only a small portion of those are in demand enough to make a healthy five-figure sum in any given year.

"You're talking about seven or eight players at present, most of them Gaelic footballers," says Eoin Conroy of sports sponsorship agency Titan Marketing. "It's people like Bernard Brogan, the Gooch (Kerry footballer Colm Cooper), Karl Lacey (Donegal), Seán Cavanagh (Tyrone). Others can do quite well at local level, but in terms of national reach, there aren't that many. And that's just the way sport is - some will be more marketable than others."

Cooper may have missed most of last year due to injury and was not fit enough to play in the All-Ireland final, which Kerry won, but it's a sign of his standing in the game, and in the eyes of the marketeers, that he remains one of the most bankable stars, boasting deals with adidas and Lucozade Sport among others.

O'Keeffe believes players are being let down by a championship structure that only allows for a handful of high-profile games in a season.

"It's outdated, and it needs to be overhauled," he says.

"Take Dublin football. They've dominated Leinster for so long that many don't become interested in their fortunes until August, so realistically there might be only two games where those players are enjoying a big TV audience. Look at rugby and it's so different - there are so many high-profile games between club and country and that's more appealing for brands." The commitment to be a top-level hurler is just as great as it is for their football equivalents, but their ability to interest sponsors is stymied by the necessity to wear helmets and the incontrovertible fact that the sport's appeal is limited to pockets of the country.

Yet, there are financial rewards to be had by the very best hurlers, as has been the case with record All-Ireland winner Henry Shefflin. While he had no shortage of brands keen to get him on board during his glorious playing days, he's likely to make far more money now.

"Henry, understandably enough, is in serious demand," Conroy says. "There's his contract with the Indo [he will be writing for this newspaper during the Championship], signing to The Sunday Game, a partnership with Kelloggs… The likes of Henry would be hugely popular on the speaking circuit, too. He was a leader on the pitch who transcended his sport. You'd have people who've never seen a hurling match in their lives and they'd know who Henry Shefflin is."

2015 will mark Sky Sports' second year in Gaelic games and Conroy says it has helped usher in a new way of covering football and hurling based around contracting recently retired players. "Look at Jamsie O'Connor [the former Clare hurler] - he's a great fit for what they want."

And yet, for all the inducements offered by Sky, RTÉ and others, the fact remains that if only a small cohort of players are sufficiently well known and media-friendly enough to command punditry contracts or sponsorship deals.

One Dublin-based sports agent points to Kilkenny defender Tommy Walsh as a case in point. "Any hurling fan would know what a great talent he was, truly one of the greatest players of all time," he says. "But he wasn't inundated with sponsorship offers in his playing days and he's been pretty quiet since retiring after last year's All-Ireland. Tommy might not have wanted to market himself, but it is astonishing that somebody of his stature in the game probably didn't make much money from it."

Former Dublin football player James Brogan - an All-Ireland winner in 2011 - set up a sports agency, Legacy Consultants, with his cousin Bernard and agrees that the sponsorship spoils can only go so far. "It's a limited enough pool of players," he says. "Initially, our focus was on matching players with brands, but now it's more about matching brands with players. It's definitely become more brands-centric and we deal with many other sports, too, not just the GAA. In a way, because of our backgrounds, the GAA was the launching pad into other sports."

Brogan says the rigours of modern-day football - even at club level - can force players to put their careers on hold.

"You do find that many of them are students until well into their 20s and others work at jobs like teaching where they're that bit freer to commit to training. Certainly, in my father's day [Jim, a member of the great 1970s Dublin side], there was a greater mix of professions."

Meanwhile, the GPA's Potts is anxious to point out that the association's core work is not helping players secure sponsorship deals, but to ensure they are operating "in the right environment with basic needs such as insurance, medical, expenses (sorted out)".

"We support their education through scholarships - €2m has been spent on scholarships since 2010 - and educational advice. We have established our own Leadership Programme for players this year, we support their career development - employment searching, networking, interviews, promotions, job changes, upskilling, presentation and media skills." Players establishing or growing their own business are supported too.

Potts says the GPA has helped make players aware of the baseline pay they should get for specific events and has helped individuals chase payments - not just from local business, but the odd high-profile brand, too. "At the end of the day, we support the amateur ethos of the GAA, but we want to make sure that no player is ever exploited. That happened before - it mustn't happen again."

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