Cash flow glosses over drought at grassroots level
Croke Park is thriving but sources of funds for clubs have all but dried up, writes Colm O'Rourke
IF you took the figures in the GAA's annual returns at face value, you might think that everything in the garden is rosy. But of course this is only part of the story as the provinces and the counties are run separately so their figures don't appear in the Central Council returns which were published last week.
All together we see a multi-million-euro organisation – €52.8m taken in at central level and a multiple of that figure if you include the clubs, counties and provinces.
Ignoring the snide and idiotic comments from those who paint the GAA as grabbing money, rather than returning a lot of it to different units, it is still a very efficient cash cow when revenues rise substantially during the worst recession since the 1980s.
At least part of the reason why this part of the GAA has managed to survive and prosper when most other businesses are contracting was the decision to rebuild Croke Park. It was a case of the old American idea of "build it and they will come". Supporters who would not travel to many games are always keen to go to Croke Park where there is added comfort. Allied to this are the number of new teams that have emerged and the qualifiers which have added greatly to the appeal.
I could say live television has helped too, but I may be slightly biased in that regard, even though I feel there are too many games on at the moment which discourages people going to league matches, while one big game is enough to show live every Sunday during the summer.
So even after losing a ball of money on rugby and soccer moving back to Lansdowne Road – and there is hardly any need for two big stadiums in a relatively small city – the GAA have performed admirably at central level. But the devil is in the detail. When you turn over the big stone that is the GAA, a lot of nasty-looking creatures start running out. The nasties in this case are the clubs, in particular, and some counties that are in dire financial straits.
Sources of funds for many clubs have all but dried up. The local builder, much derided in the national media as if he was continually on the make, has now disappeared. Those people with GAA backgrounds were generous benefactors at club level. That tap has now been turned off and many clubs, in rural areas especially, have seen sponsorship dry up. And the jobs are gone too. The club loses on the double – no money coming in and many players having to leave to work in Canada or Australia.
The scale of problems for clubs is similar to the home mortgage crisis. Everyone is kicking the can down the road but there are very many clubs that will never be able to pay off their debts. This is the ticking timebomb. Some may have been a bit reckless in their borrowing but it was done with the best of intentions, to provide better facilities for their own community. Nothing wrong with that and it is not as if the GAA club is some type of dictatorship where vanity projects took over. Some got caught with buying expensive land while doing a deal with a developer who went bust before the ink was dry. Timing in life is everything.
While some clubs have fantastic facilities and no debt, there are others that tried to do exactly the same thing and got caught. The pillar banks that encouraged the clubs to borrow as much as they wanted are now acting like the grim reaper. And, as Páraic Duffy wrote in his annual report, it is a serious disincentive to get involved in the local club if you are trying to drag this massive financial rock up the hill. Instead of organising and enjoying games there are many officials pulling their hair out in attempting to finance debt. There needs to be some overall write-down of club debt or a lot of clubs would be better off telling the banks to take over the club.
As clubs struggle, so too does the local community. The sponsorship has gone down and the club invests less in things like catering, buses, gear for teams and so on. A lot of young people have gone and the whole village – as the old saying goes, the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker – has suffered. With over 300 clubs internationally, the strength of the GAA club abroad is the opposite of what is happening at home. One is in decline, the
other providing the jobs, accommodation and contacts for the latest wave of young emigrants.
At home, the banks that put up the umbrella when the sun was shining have now taken it away completely once the rain started and left a new younger group of decent people who work in banks to do the dirty work. And clubs suffer on, without much help from anyone. This is the true image of the GAA grassroots. At central level there is a surplus and those who make big decisions in Croke Park are probably afraid to start helping clubs or the dam will burst. Bad enough to have to help out a few counties but the big iceberg is the clubs and their accumulated debts.
With a healthy balance sheet at the top, the policy should be to spend and the first thing should be to ensure that all county grounds have floodlighting of a sufficient standard to host inter-county games. Venues of a maximum capacity of 10,000 would do fine and it is a great time to invest with costs so low. Not only that, but it would give a bit of work to plumbers, brickies, electricians, carpenters and hundreds of small businesses.
It is time to switch on the lights again in more ways than one.