AT the end of January, the Dublin County Board appointed former managing director of Manchester United International, Mike Farnan, to its newly-formed Commercial, Marketing and Brand department.
Farnan has specialised in working with some of the biggest sporting brands in Europe, including marquee football clubs in England, Spain and Italy. He joined Tomás Quinn in Dublin's commercial section, his appointment a clear sign that Dublin are intent on maintaining the clout that earned them an estimated €4m deal with the AIG group over five years.
Already the GAA has rejected the notion of pooling counties' sponsorship funds, so it's up to each county to look after itself. The establishment of a dedicated commercial wing has the potential to put Dublin ahead of the rest.
It could be argued, indeed, that there is already an enormous gulf. While 75 per cent of counties still look to white-collar boxing, race outings and golf classics for fundraising, Dublin are now operating on a completely different planet. They already benefit from a special centralised fund to improve the growth of hurling in the city and county, not to mention the AIG deal and the rewards and bonuses their new commercial exploration will achieve.
These great riches do not guarantee successful teams and silverware, but the bulging bank balance will enable them to invest in the best pitches and facilities. They can ensure their development squads do not have to slash their underage strength and conditioning programmes (which other counties have had to) and so the production line of suitably prepared young players will continue. They can also avail of the best of services for their stars.
The question now is how will the others react? How can they attempt to bridge the gap that has arisen between Dublin and the rest? Some county boards have grasped the bull by the horns by advertising two sponsors' logos on their jerseys – one on the front and another on the back of the collar. Other counties are investigating individual sponsorship of their senior players.
Only recently Cavan launched their 'Sponsor a Player' campaign and, based on a similar Kildare scheme, local companies can, for the sum of €500, sponsor a Cavan senior footballer for the year ahead. Businesses that row in behind the team will receive acknowledgement in every home NFL programme and for the Cavan senior, intermediate and junior finals. They can also request players to attend promotions at an agreed time. They hope to get 40 companies involved.
Kildare, who have been hit badly by the recent turmoil in their supporters' club, started the ball rolling with this template. For the small sum of €250, local businesses have a chance to sponsor a Kildare senior footballer for the 2014 season.
"Counties have to do something to try and compete and bring money in; that has to be understood first," insists John Trainor, managing director of Onside Sponsorship. "If they don't they will be left further behind.
"And there is definitely a psyche within the marketing industry that feels player involvement and brand endorsement is effective. An annual survey we conduct shows that 92 per cent of respondents feel that route is a good channel to go down. So those who look for individual player sponsorships are on to something.
"But there are risks attached," the industry expert warned. "You don't want to undersell anyone and maybe a deal would be more effective if it involved a group of players. The overall issue here in terms of player sponsorship, and having multi-backers involved, is that county boards might miss a trick by not selling and packaging their opportunities in a more structured fashion."
Merely going and selling a name for the back of a county shirt, Trainor suggests, may not be advantageous enough in the long term. County executives, he feels, should endeavour to attract a brand to become more deeply involved with the team over a period of time.
"They (boards) could consider funnelling a different mix of rights to interested companies, for instance," Trainor proposes. "Putting a logo on the back of a jersey is one option, but how about naming rights for summer camps or other elements that could be a bit deeper and more meaningful? There is a whole other ball game out there for county boards to explore."
Armagh, Laois, Sligo and Roscommon have all ventured down the road of a primary and secondary shirt sponsor but, again, the Onside Sponsorship chief suggests that counties need to be careful before they travel that particular route.
"There could be a lot more to it," he argues. "Take the technological company Intel as an example – they recently agreed a €25m contract over five years with FC Barcelona to have their logo stitched inside the Barca shirt. In doing that, they turned the whole area of sponsorship on its head. They were there to forge relationships, and were so focused and confident about putting the logo inside that they were content to foster the relationship with technological and developmental projects they could explore with the club. And they probably got most of the money back in the end anyway because after scoring a goal Neymar lifted his shirt over his head and the Intel logo was there for all to see. That was worth millions in its own right.
"If GAA officials sit back and study the area properly, they can foster strong and meaningful secondary partnerships."
The alliance between Sligo and its two chief sponsors, the Radisson Hotel and Sligo IT, is one example of how all three parties could work closely together and benefit from a deal.
But it's miles off Dublin's €4m mega-buck five-year deal, for example, just like Leitrim's estimated €20,000-per-annum agreement with the Bush Hotel is, making it so difficult for smaller counties to compete on an even keel. Yet, in other ways, Leitrim's deal works; the owner of the Bush Hotel, Joe Dolan, recently stated that he got a serious kick-back on his sponsorship of the county team with around 25 Leitrim clubs holding their annual functions on his premises. Dolan, a passionate supporter, is therefore more likely to be personally involved throughout the sponsorship.
The matter of the massive gulf between the counties may not make a real indent in the public conscience until the Blue Army starts to dominate at both football and hurling in the coming years, which is entirely possible. Only then will we see a clamour to have the playing field levelled. At the moment the other counties are simply too busy figuring out how to stay afloat, how to make the most of the resources at their disposal.
The GAA won't act on this matter for some time yet, although in his annual report director-general Páraic Duffy admitted that how Croke Park distributed money to counties would have to be examined more closely. There is no doubt that a review is needed – Dublin received just over €2m in 2012 while Louth received €270,312. We know who brings in the biggest crowds, and Dublin have to be somehow rewarded for their marketability, but who needs the greater assistance?
Trainor feels that counties should consider linking up and merging if they feel it's the best way of attracting a gold-standard backer which they may not attract on their own.
"Some companies who want to get involved with GAA teams would feel that there is not enough play for them in one individual county, so boards should consider the prospect of merging underneath one backer. There are all sorts of packages they could streamline: shirt sponsorship, logo visibility rights in the relevant stadia, ticketing. If it feels like the brand would get more exposure companies might deem that a worthwhile exercise.
"If they saw a more definite opportunity they could consider it," he suggested. "Because the bottom line is that the sponsorship market is in danger of being saturated. It's harder to stand out in the Irish marketplace and there is a real danger of clutter. If this is not managed properly by the various sporting bodies, there will be a further annoyance within the industry and it could count against counties if there is a tipping point.
"This is where the small and medium enterprises must be careful. And counties too. Only consider an opportunity that is mature, sophisticated and professional. Don't do it on the cheap, it won't help in the long run. There is a need for creative and innovative thinking.
"Our annual survey figures show that the level of visibility and media exposure for a logo on the back of a shirt is between just 20 and 40 per cent. So, you have to weigh up everything and consider whether that is sufficient return."
Trainor's counsel is spot-on. Until help arrives from HQ, however, some counties have no choice but to grasp any opportunity that comes their way.