Thursday 22 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Clubs should be relieved of this crippling debt burden

A bit of imagination would clear the pitch for the GAA's real work to resume

The rent of Croke park for the One Direction concerts brought in €4.7m which makes the loss of the Garth Brooks concerts harder to fathom
The rent of Croke park for the One Direction concerts brought in €4.7m which makes the loss of the Garth Brooks concerts harder to fathom
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The GAA's financial report is not my idea of bedtime reading. Like most financial reports, it appeals to a certain type and the trawl through the myriad different companies under the GAA umbrella leaves me completely underwhelmed. You need to be of an accounting mentality to undertake the full adventure, and to me it is a boring experience.

The headline figures have been well touted at this stage. Income of over €56m and various figures being distributed to clubs, coaching and capital projects. Like most accounts there is no detail of who got what, no breakdown of who earns what, so the figures are just a general picture of an organisation which looks in rude health. As all the money is given out, the GAA is a latter day Robin Hood with a touch of Mother Teresa thrown in.

Some of the figures do stand out. Only 52 per cent of income comes from gate receipts which shows the commercial weight of the GAA. The rent of Croke Park for the One Direction concerts brought in €4.7m which makes the loss of the Garth Brooks concerts harder to fathom. Quite why a few people in important positions jettisoned a project which would have brought enormous sums of money to Dublin, Ireland and the GAA is still hard to credit. Ultimately, it cost ordinary clubs money as it reduced the amount available for distribution.

The fine print of the deal with Sky for exclusive broadcasting of some games is harder to trace, but it does seem that the amounts involved are relatively small. For me that makes the deal even worse. If the GAA were getting a king's ransom for exclusive rights we could all just about stomach it but denying most members the chance to see All-Ireland quarter-finals because they are exclusive to Sky viewers only makes the whole thing stink. The selling point at the time was that it meant matches were going to be live in the British market but could be viewed there anyway. As the Cavan man said, "it is an even worser deal than I thought".

So on the surface this looks like the ultimate in organisational efficiency and it is too. There are no sports organisations in the world which are efficiently run at the top like this and where most of the money finds its way back down to the bottom. It is a model which has survived professionalism, corruption at the highest level in state administration and other various scandals.

Yet this picture of a vibrant money-making machine is not the GAA of the vast majority. Clubs in every county are swimming in debt and the GAA at the highest level has done nothing for the majority except offer pious platitudes. Expressing concern is of no value to clubs where lottos, Strictly Come Dancing, The Cube and any other means of making small money are the daily diet. The millions flowing around in Croke Park exists in some type of parallel universe.

So what should be done? The GAA have had a unique opportunity to do something about all club and county debts over the last few years but seem unwilling or unable to face this problem down. I have suggested the solution to various people in the organisation since 2010 but it appears that they listen for a while and then hope I go away. The same applies with fixtures, player welfare and changes in the rules of the game to reduce handpassing. I am not getting anywhere but I will continue to highlight aspects of the GAA which need tackling.

For me the financial scene is the worst. I have suggested that every county board should do a financial account based on the total indebtedness of all clubs and the board itself. If every county did that and then forwarded it to Croke Park, they would have all the information necessary to tackle the issue. Remember most club debt was run up in the good times by clubs who were expanding to cater for the youth of this country. It was not to build monuments to ego. Some were lucky and got out on deals with builders who bought some of their land, others got caught and have been plunged into a spiral of interest repayments which has drained the energy out of clubs as paying back money dominates instead of promoting the games.

When Croke Park has all this debt detail, which must amount to at least a couple of hundred million euro, they should go to the two big banks, Bank of Ireland and AIB, who hold the majority of loans, and negotiate a write-down in return for immediate repayment. These two banks have been bailed out by the citizens of the country, many of whom are GAA members. Yet the organisation, which has done most to hold the social fabric of the country together at a time when anarchy could have prevailed, have not only failed to benefit, but have actually been penalised. They are weighed down by interest repayments and reading the financial report at central level only makes the very best of club people angry.

If the GAA could get a write-down of 25 to 30 per cent they obviously have to immediately access this money from some other source. Over the last couple of years in particular, huge amounts of capital has flowed into this country through hedge funds, pension funds and the like to purchase the best property and assets. It amounts to a latter day plunder with State acquiesence. These funds have no morals but there is an opportunity for the GAA to do a deal and get some of these monies to wipe out all debt. A person like former president Peter Quinn would sort this out in a few months.

Now these funds look for a return over time and so if it was too onerous the GAA could go to a big international bank and get the money needed. Croke Park would then become the bank for all clubs and county boards and pro rata they would have to make repayments in the normal way, except they would have gained a big write-off.

Would it work? Of course it would and there are enough friends of the GAA at the upper end of the banking world to see it through. This has the potential to save clubs and county boards between €50m-100m. I hope there is someone with the vision, drive and enthusiasm to make it happen rather than see the difficulties. The extra administration at Croke Park would be one obstacle, but that is easily overcome and clubs would not mind making repayments to their own organisation.

The GAA at central level and clubs are two trains moving in opposite directions. One with Sky, American football, big concerts and lucrative sponsors on board, the other with the plain people shovelling on the coal to keep up a head of steam.

The clubs should not be looked on as the poor who are always with us. Hard times also offer opportunity. It's time to get the banks off the backs of great clubs and let them look after their players and the country's youth.

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