Tuesday 20 February 2018

Will day come when GAA stars earn 'LeBron' money?

Rachel Wyse

Tuesday night last, in downtown Miami, a basketball team began a journey that may well see them make history. This is a journey known to few – only the very best pass that way.

The Miami Heat are already winners; NBA champions for the past two seasons, they now stand on the cusp of greatness. A defining season lies ahead. Failure won't lessen what has gone before, but success will ensure an eternal place among the game's elite.

So precious is the feat of winning three consecutive NBA titles, America coined a phrase – 'three-peat' – to ensure the enormity of the achievements is never understated. In the 66-year history of NBA finals, just four teams have managed a three-peat, the most famous being Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls side which did it twice in the '90s.

Auerbach, Russell, Jordan, Pippen, O'Neal and Bryant all knew the feeling; legendary names that transcended their sport, names that pass from generation to generation but carry no less significance. In Bosh, Wade and particularly LeBron James, the Miami Heat have no shortage of All Star personnel; whether their greatness is comparable with those gone before will only be known over the coming months.

Every NBA franchise has a leader, someone to cast a shadow on his team-mates, and in Miami LeBron James is that man. Should he never make another free-throw or dunk over another hapless opponent, James has accumulated wealth beyond most imaginations.

Before he had left high school, James was a millionaire courtesy of a seven-year Nike contract worth $90m in his senior year. Today, it is estimated James is worth $120m.


Over the last few weekends, as I digested the scorelines of county finals played in Ireland's soggy, windswept fields, the plight of GAA's top players became sharper.

In sport there is a scale. At one end of this scale are determined men trying to do great things for their parish, their people, the jersey weighed down by effects of a season's exertion and hindered by the elements of a typical Irish winter.

At the other end is LeBron James. How does a beef dinner, pints for a few nights in the local and claps on the back that last until the first whistle is blown of a new season compare with a seven-year shoe deal worth $90m?

Yes there is a priceless element to consider. The memories, the bond generated by a special feeling of winning with those you knew so young, those reared on the same land. Your own people. Memories money couldn't buy.

Memories more valuable than those shared by James and Wade in their last two seasons in Miami? Different games, different countries played in front of very different audiences, I hear you say.

Truths that make me wonder even more. Will a day ever come when hurling or Gaelic football is consumed by enough people to grant them a viability known to a sport like basketball? What would such a day look like?

This isn't a reference to a professionalism debate that rises and falls within GAA circles with irregularity; these are fantasies on a considerably greater scale.

In today's world anything is possible. Information and concepts spread from one side of the globe to another in days. Societies are less enclosed; minds certainly are more open and free.

How often have you encountered a person from foreign lands speaking of our games with wonder and awe?

How often have you brought a friend to Croke Park and marvelled at the look on their face as they watch a county's best go to war?

These games rival any product in the sports market, as do the men of Ireland who play the games. The crassness and stupidity of those enjoying obscene rewards of other sports certainly isn't a charge GAA players are guilty of.

Would these characteristics change if everything in their environment changed? I think not. As a brave man from Cloyne referenced this week, 'a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step' – and was the recent 11-a-side 'Celtic Champions Classic' at University of Notre Dame such a first step?

Is this indicative of willingness from those who hold power to truly promote the games on a global scale, or are those who deem the trip an end of season jolly correct?

Gaelic games are played outside Ireland, in places as far away as Argentina but participation is usually confined to ex-pats.

Awareness and participation remains restricted to the same audience, its appeal doesn't grow – all that changes is the location. I wonder is the GAA's greatest strength actually a weakness in any quest to spread the word of the games?

This is an organisation rooted in localities, based on the ethos of first club and then county.

At its best it is raw tribalism. At its best it gives people an identity that can't be rationalised. Initially, would a global audience buy into games without feeling such emotion? Perhaps.

We all know someone proud to wear a Manchester United jersey despite not having any connection with Manchester. It proves people buy into concepts from which they are far removed.

It's thought basketball was first played in 1892, with the NBA being formed in 1946.

Since its inception, players from China to Argentina have played at the highest level as the virtues of an American game became more widespread.

When the founding fathers of the GAA sat in a Thurles hotel on that famous day in 1884, I wonder did they ever envisage their games ever being played by more than 'Irish' people?

Could it ever be that men born and reared in Ireland might struggle to dominate their sport? It won't be in my lifetime but some day it may become a reality.

The greatest games in the world played on a worldwide stage? It would be something.

One thing is for sure, if LeBron James cost Nike $90m, another zero may well be necessary before landing Colm Cooper or Henry Shefflin.

Irish Independent

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