Tuesday 22 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Mayo's 'Sugar Daddy' row is a cautionary tale for others'

Benefactors' aid welcome but should they have a say in how money is spent?

Mayo in New York in May. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo in New York in May. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Tim O'Leary is, by all accounts, something of a Mayo supporter extraordinaire. A wealthy businessman, who hails from London, his family links with green-and-red country coaxed him into doing something practical to help the cause.

He set up the Mayo GAA International Supporters Foundation, with the aim of raising substantial funds for various projects in the county.

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It worked too. Huge sums were generated - a dinner in New York last May to coincide with Mayo's Connacht Championship game contributed $253,000 (€231,000) to the coffers and O'Leary claims that he has made personal donations of €415,000. Now that's serious 'Sugar Daddy' stuff.

It sounded like great news for Mayo, but unfortunately a hitch has arisen. Relations between the foundation and the Mayo County Board strained after last May's venture and €250,000 is being withheld due to a dispute.

It's all out in the open now after the foundation informed Mayo clubs that funding to the county board would cease "until appropriate governance structures are put in place".

Apparently, they relate mainly to plans for an academy and centre of excellence.

Tim O’Leary with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the county’s gala ball in the city
Tim O’Leary with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the county’s gala ball in the city

The Mayo County Board haven't given a detailed response yet, but insist all their financial systems and affairs are in perfect working order and available for scrutiny every year.

There you have it. A relationship that started so promisingly has turned sour and, in the process, made Mayo front-page news yet again for the wrong reasons.

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Where the story goes from here is anybody's guess, although it's fair to assume that O'Leary and the county board won't be on each other's Christmas card lists.

Other counties may look at Mayo's discomfort with a sense of detached curiosity, but that's to ignore the reality that it could have arisen anywhere.

Galway will take particular interest given sponsors Supermac's last night aired their concerns over the county's finances.

Croke Park won't see it as their problem either, but they would be wrong to regard it as a matter of no-consequence from a national perspective.

A quote from O'Leary in an interview with Irish Independent legal affairs editor Shane Phelan underlined why the relationship between county boards and outsiders needs to be carefully monitored.

"I am just trying to change the system that has been in place for X number of years," he said.

I have no idea whether Mayo's governance systems need changing, but if they do it has to come from within the county, not from one individual who dispenses largesse. The same applies everywhere else.

That's where it gets complex for the GAA at a time when raising funds on the international scene has become increasingly common.

Irish people living overseas, and indeed others with ancestral links, are happy to financially support their counties, which is very helpful in an era when the cost of running all the inter-county teams is climbing towards €25 million per year.

But where does the line get drawn? Do the overseas contributors simply pass money on to county boards or do they want a say in how it's spent? If it's the latter, there's a risk that governance could be overly influenced by people who are answerable to nobody. It is a case of money talking much louder than democracy and we all know what that entails.

The more influence non-elected people are in a position to exert, the greater the risk to core values.

I have long been of the opinion that the GAA is heading for some form of professionalism. In fact, I suspect it's unstoppable. The more money the association generates, the greater the pressure on the amateur wall.

It's happening already, especially in the back-room area where battalions of 'specialists' are being rewarded handsomely for their services.

Paying managers used to be the big challenge but now it has extended to the support acts.

There's no way of controlling it because counties will not hold the line if their neighbours are happy to spend heavily.

Most counties will release end-of-year figures for county team costs, but none of them provide any detail of precisely where the money went. Most of it is spent on senior teams, so it would be very interesting to see itemised costs.

It won't happen because county boards know how shocked the public would be. And that's before the GPA, who appear to be nudging more towards a form of professionalism, study the bottom line.

Financial pressures have prompted counties to look overseas for funding, which, at face value, is a good idea.

But, as Mayo have discovered, it can also become very messy. It's their problem now, but others can expect some variation of the theme into the future.

Why? Because money brings a sense of power which doesn't rate democracy very highly. It's one more problem for the GAA to contend with in the inevitable battle to defend its amateur status.

They'll need a lot of luck to keep it intact for much longer.

Irish Independent

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