Wednesday 21 March 2018

Rise of hype-driven UFC contrasts markedly with 'say nothing' mentality of GAA players

Conor McGregor after his win over Jose Aldo. The GAA could learn from the rise of the UFC through the sheer force of its marketing power
Conor McGregor after his win over Jose Aldo. The GAA could learn from the rise of the UFC through the sheer force of its marketing power
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The single biggest piece in the sports section of Monday's 'USA TODAY' newspaper wasn't about any American pursuit which, in itself, is something of a wonder in a country obsessed by its own extensive array of activities.

However, on this occasion all the favourites from the world of American football, basketball, hockey etc had their space seriously eroded by the exploits of Conor McGregor.

"This is a city that relishes its naughty charms and is smart enough to keep its secrets, but it might never have witnessed anything quite like the collective joy sparked by McGregor's stunning capture of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's featherweight belt and the accompanying confirmation that he is the biggest star in mixed martial arts," was the 'USA TODAY' summation of Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Now whether you like or are repulsed by this type of fighting - and people in the latter category shouldn't feel they're out of touch because they can't warm to it - the reality is that it has become a world sensation.

Perched on the summit is McGregor, described by 'USA TODAY' as the UFC's "golden child and chief cash cow."


UFC is, unquestionably, a marketing triumph of epic proportions, building slowly but cleverly until it reached the stage where it's now being driven forward by its own momentum.

It's a fact, of course, that UFC's phenomenal growth was helped to a great degree by professional boxing's calamitous failure to maintain interest and energy amid the many squabbling factions, the half-baked world titles and a sense of inertia that left it primed to be picked off.

There isn't a sport anywhere in the world that couldn't learn a great deal from the rise of UFC through the sheer force of its marketing power.

That includes the GAA. Now, it's unlikely that there will ever be McGregor-like eruptions from the All-Ireland camps before an All-Ireland final but there are different levels at which a sport can operate in order to push its own promotion. That struck me out in St Edward's University, Austin last Sunday during the GAA/GPA Opel All-Stars hurling exhibition.

Many of the best hurlers were showing off their skills to a new audience, but how many people back home know anything about them?

Since wearing a helmet was made compulsory, even the recognition factor among hurlers has decreased considerably.

Quite simply, the public don't see the players' faces anymore, nor do they get to know them through interviews - either print or broadcast - because the days of players sitting down with journalists for a one-on one chat are largely over.

Yes, there are plenty of PR-staged events where players are presented for group interview in return for a fee. Indeed, a small number of the high-profile players do very well out of it - and good luck to them.

However, the exchanges are usually so bland that it has been clear for a long time that players put forward for that type of interview are coached syllable-by syllable on what to say.

It's pathetic really to have bright well-educated young men programmed so tightly that even on the rare occasions when they speak, it all sounds the same.

Those of us who have been around the trade for some time remember a different world where players happily engaged with the media. Not all of them, since there were - and always will be - those who dislike interviews.

Nothing wrong with that but the current environment creates the clear impression that only a tiny minority are happy to talk.

And, even then, it has to be under the most controlled circumstances. It's difficult to believe that current players are all that different to their predecessors, which brings us to the kernel of the matter.

The 'silence is golden rule' has, as its driving force, a near-paranoid approach by managers, who seem to fear than even the most routine of comments will become a powerful weapon for the opposition.

It's pure nonsense, of course, but it has become so ingrained in the modern-day psyche that it's difficult to see any change in the foreseeable future.

It's worth emphasising again that players are under no obligation whatsoever to engage with the media.

However, why are those who would happily do so - and bear in mind they can use it for their personal promotional interests too - denied the opportunity? Player power extends across a large tract of the GAA landscape nowadays but obviously hasn't reached a stage where articulate young men question why gagging applies from the day they come into a squad.

Nor is it simply a matter of money. Even if the media was prepared to pay handsomely for interviews, they could, in the majority of cases, still only be conducted with the approval of the team manager. That would inevitably lead to a pretty dull encounter.

Of course, players aren't the only marketing providers for the GAA but they are certainly the most potent.

Unfortunately, that market is being tapped to a tiny degree only at a time when other sports, recognising the need to keep themselves out front all the time, are pushing their promotion agenda.

Media bans? Can't see them coming to UFC any time soon.

Irish Independent

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