GAA continues global expansion with Asian market full of Eastern promise
It's the time of year when the GAA goes global. This month alone, the Galway and Kilkenny hurlers will have visited Sydney, while the Clare, Limerick, Wexford and Cork squads will head to Boston to play in the Fenway Hurling Classic this weekend. And later this month the All-Star footballers of the past two years head to Philadelphia.
The nature of these trips abroad can draw ire. The most common argument is why are the GAA putting so much effort into promoting their games abroad when there's so much to be done at home, particularly around hurling. For one reason or another they will all attract a certain amount of media attention.
Last Sunday night, RTé showed highlights of the Galway-Kilkenny game. Hearing 'The Sunday Game' theme tune in November was disconcerting. There'll be publicity around events in Boston this weekend too while the travelling media with the All-Stars will ensure that event is covered.
But perhaps the most significant GAA event outside of the island this month takes place in Bangkok with the 23rd running of the Asian Games, an event which has grown beyond all expectation since its inception in 1996.
Back then around 70 expats met up in Manila but they could never have known what it would become.
The Fexco Asian Games are now the biggest gathering of the Irish community in Asia and the Gulf. This year, it will break its own record once more with more than 850 players registered to play in the games which kick off this weekend.
"The size of the event would probably blow a lot of people away and where it has gone to now where we have six levels of competitions," explained Mayo native Páraic McGrath who has been involved in the Asian Games since 2004.
"Back in the day it was men's and ladies and they played round-robin and it was done in a day or a day and a half. Now it is with 30-plus nationalities and we have more ladies playing than men.
"But the spread, diversity, sheer size in numbers and the different levels so that caters for everyone, that's probably the thing that would strike people the most when they see it. What we get a lot of when people visit us is, 'Jeez, I didn't realise the scale of it'."
It is far from just an Irish event. This weekend 34 different countries will be represented including for the first time an Afghani national with estimates putting the number of non-Irish players at somewhere between 10 and 15pc.
The Japanese ladies team is made up of almost all Japanese players. Cambodia will be represented while Jakarta are active once more after being dormant for a few years. And it will all be pulled together across two hectic days that will see 200-plus games played on pitches around Bangkok.
It's a remarkable feat of logistics by Asian and Thailand GAA chiefs to pull it all together given the scale of the operation required in terms of accommodation, transport and access to facilities to host more than 200 games. Companies have caught on to the network that the games can provide too. Fexco are in their eighth year as title sponsors and others are involved too.
The doors the event can open have been acknowledged by guests over the years including then Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and a chairman of the Hyundai group.
"When we launch the games we generate awareness in Ireland," explained Fexco's Maria McGrath.
"But the games themselves, whatever country they have been in, this year they are in Thailand, they've been in China and next year they are in Kuala Lumpur and they are all very important markets for us and helps us increase brand recognition for Fexco. We could be trying to recruit or align with partners out there. That all helps that network and makes doing business out there that bit easier."
They are supported by a handful of other companies who do business in Asia and, with their support, the plan is to keep getting bigger.
The games aren't far off spreading into a third day while the Youth Games in the region have exploded too. There are plans to enter a team in the Féile.
"We'd like to grow the Asian Youth championships," McGrath continued. "We had 300 kids from five different countries - Korean, Chinese, Singaporean, Malay and Irish of course and we'd like to grow that.
"As regards the seniors, as long as the tournament continues to evolve and allows more non-Irish to participate and we see the youth come through, then I think we'll be in good shape."