Friday 20 September 2019

Big money brings an even bigger threat to amateur wall

Counties are astute at bringing in revenue but managing it correctly is more important than ever

Past president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Past president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

One of the recommendations in the report compiled by the GAA's 'Towards 2034' committee was the appointment of a finance manager in every county.

They reasoned that long-established practices were no longer fit for purpose in an organisation where costs and revenues were soaring at a rate that nobody would have envisaged even 10 years ago.

"The pressure to sustain the day-to-day operations of the GAA is emerging very much at club and county level. The increasing costs associated with sustaining clubs and counties financially have become a major and possibly too onerous a burden for volunteer county officers.

"It should be asked whether it is appropriate or acceptable in a modern association for volunteers to have responsibility for the management of very significant budgets at county level, often in excess of €1 million," noted the report.

Commissioned by the last president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl (right), the report - which offered an outline of what the GAA should look like on its 150th birthday in 16 years' time - was finalised in January but, for some reason, it has remained unpublished (officially at least) and is likely to remain so.

That means that none of its many recommendations will ever be discussed in open forum, so there's no way of knowing how the extended GAA family would react to the proposal to have a paid finance manager in every county.

The figures carried here today suggest that many counties are very good at raising money without the input of full-time professionals, although some do have them. Indeed, the totals are quite staggering, underlining the amounts of money washing through the system.

They tell only part of the story, since they refer solely to county revenues. The sums at provincial and national level are much greater, providing clear proof that the self-proclaimed best amateur organisation in the world is one smart operator when it comes to accumulating income.

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Of course, the vast majority of it is generated by the players in some form or other.

Whether through gate receipts, media rights, sponsorships, commercial deals or fundraising, it all comes back to the players and the hugely popular product they continue to serve up.

That's why the massive figures are an opportunity and a threat at the same time. The opportunity comes in the form of openings for expansion, while the threat centres on breaches in the amateur wall.

The unprecedented popularity of the games provides an income flood that shows no sign of abating.

Indeed, new sources, especially overseas, are being tapped all the time, although there's some disquiet at the intense fundraising going on in America in particular.


Those running GAA activities in the US like to help their home counties but are concerned by the amount of money leaving their own clubs to pour into counties back home.

New president John Horan alluded to it after taking over last February and urged those fundraising overseas not to forget the GAA in the cities they were targeting.

Still, there's no doubt that the opportunities for widening income streams have never been greater and while it's all very encouraging at one level, there's another side too. The bigger the pot, the greater the risks from creeping professionalism.

It has happened to some degree already, with many of the top players banking tidy sums from their off-field activities. As those opportunities increase in an improving economy, the threat level rises higher up the amateur wall.

Top GAA players are now seen as prime assets in the sponsorship/endorsement world and, with more companies coming aboard all the time, money is becoming central rather than peripheral in a great many cases.

Espousing amateur principles is all very fine but, as other sports discovered over the years, it can be all but impossible to prevent real professionalism working its way stealthily into the system.

Despite the pledges from the GPA that pay-for-play is not on their agenda, they cannot promise it will remain so into the future.

Times and trends change and a new generation of players may be a whole lot more forceful than the current one. Indeed, that's almost certainly inevitable over the next decade or so.

The GAA's capacity to generate income is impressive but the danger is that the more it brings in, the more that will be required.

Team costs continue to increase every year, often as a result of burgeoning back-room teams, many of whom are paid.

How many counties carry out value-for-money exercises? Who appoints the 'professionals'? Is it left to the manager, who may also be paid, to hire them and then hand the bills to the county board?

What controls and restrictions are placed on managers? Do county boards have the expertise to manage large amounts of money?

These are questions that remain largely unanswered. Croke Park have no direct control over local finances unless, of course, a county sinks into heavy debt which requires central intervention.


An important question which arises now is whether the financial models used in the GAA work anymore.

They are certainly good at bringing in revenue but there's more to it than that.

Tom Ryan, the GAA's recently-appointed director-general and an expert in financial management, is well qualified to address the commercial side of the organisation.

It's an important challenge, especially with the threat of professionalism creeping quietly into so many aspects of GAA life. The figures carried here today underline that.

Irish Independent

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