Sunday 26 May 2019

Eugene McGee: In these times of austerity, GAA should give their fans a bailout

At long last the GAA is making a conscious decision to start marketing their inter-county games. Even though they have been forced into this by declining attendances and serious competition from soccer and the Olympic Games this summer, it is still very welcome.

There is nothing as depressing as being at a championship game on a warm summer's day with only a few thousand people in attendance.

There are, of course, many reasons for declining attendances, such as live TV coverage, poor quality games, the damage done to knockout competition by the qualifiers and a changing society which now decrees that Sundays are family days rather than the day for going to GAA games.

But the elephant in the room for the GAA, as far as a decline in attendances is concerned, is not any of these factors, but the reality of a shortage in spending money.

It is quite possible that many of the top 100 or so leaders of the GAA around the country genuinely do not realise how hard-pressed thousands of their members are -- and it's getting worse by the day.

Many thousands of GAA followers have lost their jobs and thousands more self-employed have either given up work because they could no longer make a living or, if they are still in business, are operating on greatly reduced profit margins, if any.

GAA officers might go 20 or 30 years without ever having to pay into games, and there is nothing wrong with this because they spend their Sundays acting as voluntary officials at stadiums all over Ireland -- often in inclement weather -- and they get very little thanks for doing that. But, because they don't pay into matches every week, many may not realise the real hardship many other followers have to endure.

The GAA has reduced admission prices in recent years in the face of a declining standard of living nationwide, and that was a noble gesture. But I believe they should cut the admission prices further at least for another couple of years until, hopefully, the economic climate for the common man or woman might get better.

By comparison with most other organisations, the GAA is a relatively wealthy body. And other items like sponsorship and TV and radio rights are forming a larger part of GAA income nowadays.

Since last year's championship games, the cost of travelling to GAA games has increased greatly because of escalating petrol and diesel prices.

The vast majority of GAA followers still travel by car, probably at least 50,000 per Sunday from now until the end of the season.

If the traditional GAA family -- two parents and two or three children -- have a round trip of about 150 kilometres, with fuel costing maybe €30, then pay the admission and get supplies before returning home around eight o'clock, they will be lucky to escape with less than €100.

This figure is simply out of range of thousands of families.

And if followers attempt to travel to Croke Park from any of the western seaboard counties, it is virtually a no-go situation.

So there is no mystery why fewer people are attending inter-county games -- they haven't got the money to do so.

And the problem is even more serious in local club championships -- and many county boards depend so heavily on them for their annual income, which has been decimated in many places.

The GAA should reduce prices again as a gesture of support for their own followers, who willingly paid higher prices in the good days.

It is really very sad to hear about diehard GAA fans who cannot afford to go and watch their county team in a big championship game -- because such events were always a seminal part of their lives.

Obviously, the GAA cannot facilitate everybody with free admission, but another decent reduction in admission prices would be a very honourable thing to do for the Association.

So what if the GAA was to run at a loss for a few years? There is no danger of them going bankrupt or being refused an overdraft as has happened many of their supporters, or Croke Park ending up in NAMA. And there are probably ways and means of cutting expenditure too, which would lead to savings for the GAA.

Financial disclosures of several county boards in recent months have shown substantial money problems, in the short term at least.

It does not sit well with many lifelong followers to observe vast amounts of money being spent on team preparations while a county board is struggling for survival, just like many of those same supporters.

In recent times several county boards have grasped the nettle and decided to cut their measure to suit their cloth by imposing strict budgets on training expenses.

Most players that I know are prepared to accept that because they love playing for their county team, but it would still be nice if the GAA nationally could do a bit more for the rank and file supporter -- many of whom are just as dedicated to the cause as the county players.

I notice some prominent GAA people are committed publicly to voting 'Yes' for the upcoming referendum, which would confirm our severe austerity of recent times. A bit more austerity in some aspects of GAA activity would do no harm.

FOOTNOTE: I have often written about poor fixture planning that sees two championship games being played close together, but next Sunday we've one of the worst.

Longford play Laois in Longford, while 20 miles away Roscommon play an attractive game at home against Galway. In addition Cavan play Donegal just 30 miles away from Longford.

There would normally be many fans from those three home teams who would attend their neighbouring county's big games, and a lot of GAA money is being lost next Sunday by these clashes.

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