Monday 22 January 2018

Martin Breheny: GAA pay-for-play is building a slow but unstoppable momentum

Spectre of professional game moves ever closer

Star quality: Bernard Brogan, the GAA's most marketable player, in action against Marc Ó Sé of Kerry during the league semi final at Croke Park in April. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Star quality: Bernard Brogan, the GAA's most marketable player, in action against Marc Ó Sé of Kerry during the league semi final at Croke Park in April. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
The issue of pay for play for GAA players has not gone away
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

GAA President Aogán Ó Fearghaíl was unequivocal.

"If someone came in with €10bn to fund payment to our players for the next 100 years, we'd refuse it. Pay-for play would destroy our association. We are an amateur organisation, rooted in our community. That's the core principle, the vision we have to keep us rock solid," he said in an interview with the Irish Independent last November.

It was the latest renewal of vows before the GAA's God of Amateurism, an upholding of the principle that if it were a choice between Croke Park being levelled to the ground to accommodate housing and players being paid for playing, the choice would be easy.

In with the bulldozers and the wrecking balls and up with the houses - anything is preferable to a betrayal of the amateur ethos on which the GAA was founded and prospered.

It's a mantra that every GAA president, director-general and senior administrator has repeated ad infinitum over the years.

Nor have there been any calls for direct pay-for-play from the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), which is comforting for those who believe that any form of professionalism would destroy the GAA as we know it.

Fears that it was lurking on the back of the initial agenda put forward by the GPA when it was founded in 1999 were very much behind the GAA's antagonism to the new organisation.

The suspicion was that once the GPA had bedded in, it would gradually introduce a pay-for-play policy. And when the players' group used bolshie little tricks like delaying the start of league games to highlight particular grievances, their critics claimed it was only the start of a concerted power grab, culminating in a pay-for-play demand.

It hasn't happened - well, not the pay-for-play element anyway.

So that's it then, the spectre of a move towards professionalism has passed as players and administrators continue to work together under amateurism's umbrella.

Wrong. In fact, the threat from professionalism has never been greater, maybe not in the short term but very definitely further along the line.

Here's why. Last July, a deal was agreed which will see the GAA hand over €6.2m per annum to the GPA for the next three years.

The money will go to player welfare and various other initiatives. The deal is an advanced form of what had been in place in recent years but, crucially, it includes one key difference.

For the first time, funding will be linked to GAA income on a percentage basis, with 15pc of commercial revenue or €2.5m - whichever is the greater - going to the GPA.

It's a sweet arrangement for the GPA, guaranteeing a minimum of €2.5m from the GAA's commercial activities, with the possibility of more.

Meanwhile, the GAA believe they have done a good deal, ensuring harmony with the players for the next three years.

That may be the case, but once a percentage arrangement has been agreed, it becomes a starting point only.

And how long can it be before pressure comes on to apply a similar arrangement to gate receipts?

The current GPA leadership is, no doubt, totally up front in its dealings with the GAA but times change and so do the personnel at the top, both at Croke Park and player level.

The GAA's spectacular success in increasing its revenue streams (it accumulated a total of almost €250m over the last five years) is a major achievement but, ironically, it weakens the defences against the threat of professionalism.

With players' attitudes having changed quite dramatically over the last decade or so when it comes to exploiting commercial opportunities, pressure for a share of the large cake is certain to grow.

A small band of players, led by some Dublin footballers, are earning impressive sums from sponsorships, advertising, endorsements and media engagements while some others are doing quite well too.

Granted, it's confined to the more successful counties but a trend has started which is heading one direction only. Media interviews are sponsored most of the time and, if they're not, players have no compunction about asking for a fee. Players expect to be paid for most interviews, either by endorsing a product or directly by the media involved. Indeed, it has reached the ludicrous situation where scarcely a day goes by without journalists receiving invitations to sponsored events where players "will be available for interview".

They are conducted in a group setting and, much of the time, the comments from players are so banal as to be worthless. Yet, they pocketed a fee for the platitudinous rubbish.

It's the way of the modern world and players are perfectly within their rights to exploit commercial openings, although it can't be much longer before the media ignore these sponsored non-events. In my view, it should already have happened.

Still, the sponsored interviews and various other endorsement deals are part of a move to a new world where money rises ever-higher up the agenda.

It was exactly the same in rugby just before the amateur dam burst and a professional game flooded in very quickly.

It would be naïve to think that if GAA revenue continues grows - or even continues at current levels - players won't demand a share in direct payments.

It may not be for another five or even 10 years, but it's unstoppable.

After all, who would have thought 10 years ago that the GPA would be handed €6.2m per year from central coffers?

But then who would have thought that GAA income would soar to €55.7m last year? What does it have to reach before players demand a cut?

Those who argue that pay-for-play in any form would be disastrous for the GAA may well be correct, but that will provide no protection once the push comes on.

It won't be driven by anyone - or any group - in particular, but rather by the sheer momentum of changing times and circumstances. A natural evolution is under way and now all that remains in doubt is the pace at which it proceeds.

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