Counties must compete on equal footing
The prospect of more funds going to lesser counties is a positive one, says John Greene
In 1956, a delegate from Leitrim stuck his head above the parapet at GAA Congress and proposed a motion that the revenue generated in the National Football League should be shared out in a fairer fashion. At that time, the four semi-finalists were the beneficiaries.
In his book The Life and Times of Fr Sean Manning, Des Guckian recalls that Leo McAlinden's motion was defeated by 78 to 76. It came back before delegates again two years later, when the vote was 71 in favour and 61 against but a two-thirds majority was needed to carry it. The following year the vote was 116 for and 73 against. As Guckian noted, it took many years before a fairer system was introduced. The rich kept getting richer. How much progress has truly been made in the last 58 years?
The intriguing prospect of financial fair play in the GAA was raised last week when the association's director-general Páraic Duffy published his annual report.
Duffy's predecessor, Liam Mulvihill, was a master at using his annual report to test the water with new ideas, to plant seeds which could take many years to germinate. In his time, Duffy too has been adept at this and so this year we have the prospect of a radical change in thinking in how counties are being funded.
"It is clear," writes Duffy, "that counties are not competing on equal terms." It is no secret that there is something not quite right about the championships. Counties are certainly not competing on equal terms, and although Duffy is just referring to financial weight, he could have taken it further.
Over time, the inequities in football and hurling have evolved, to the point where there has for decades been a weary acceptance that this is the way it is, the only way it can be. This acceptance is more challenged now as the realisation grows that the imbalances – financial and otherwise – do not warrant the amount of time volunteers are devoting to the GAA.
But Duffy has made the point specific – he has separated the ability of counties to compete against each other financially from the ability of counties to compete against each other where it should matter most, on the field. He has come down strongly in favour of the current system. He cites Monaghan and London in football last year, and Clare in hurling, to argue that the provincial model offers counties – those that have the necessary ambition at least – a path to success.
"We are in an era where some counties have backroom teams of up to 20 people; they can afford this back-up by virtue of their success in the top division of the Allianz League, their income from sponsorship and corporate events, and other fundraising," says Duffy on the prospect of financial equality.
"Small counties, by contrast, draw from a restricted pool of players, must survive on lower revenues, and can afford minimal backroom support, yet must compete in the same leagues and championships as those with substantially greater budgets. These lesser-funded counties incur the same travel, meal and medical costs, but do not have the additional resources and supports to compete on an equal footing. Indeed, some largely rural counties incur greater costs due to players constantly travelling long distances to training from major urban centres."
This is an excellent point, which he follows up with a perfectly reasonable solution, even if it is certain to upset many: he suggests the GAA may have to change its funding approach to counties by giving less to those that are better equipped to earn money, and more to those that aren't. There should be one caveat, and that is that there should be a stricter approach to those counties with a poor track record in financial management, no matter which category they fall into. Otherwise, the sooner this type of financial fair play happens the better.
It is not a big leap, then, to link this clear disparity with what is happening on the field. Counties are not "on an equal footing", yet Duffy is so strong in his defence of the football championship in particular, that he condemns what he calls "the annual debate on the shortcomings of the less successful counties".
He goes on: "This debate is a good standby on slow news days, but one wonders if it deserves its annual outing. Our championship is based on counties whose boundaries do not, and will never, change, so surely we cannot be surprised that some teams will usually beat others on account of their greater playing population and superior resources. That said, the perceived weaker team does often win at different stages in the championship, which represents both the incentive for such teams and one of the great attractions of sport."
This 'debate' is far from a media creation – it is apparent that the two championships need to be overhauled, and especially football. It is not a championship when two counties can carve up Munster between them (Kerry and Cork have won 112 of the 125 championships completed), and three can carve up Connacht (Galway, Mayo and Roscommon have won 109 of the 114 completed). Even in Leinster, Dublin and Meath share 73 of the 126 titles won. Only Ulster can claim to offer a competitive championship as eight of nine counties have had success.
The ability of counties to financially compete on some kind of equal footing is not just linked to size and population, although obviously that is crucial. It is also linked to their short- and medium-term prospects. Everybody loves a winner. Citing Monaghan's achievement last year, for instance, to argue otherwise misses the point because only Cavan have won more Ulster titles.