Tuesday 21 November 2017

The €56m game - the rags to riches rise of the GAA

The All-Ireland football final is the most lucrative sporting event of the year and the show-piece of the GAA’s corporate and cultural prowess. Starting a special new series, ‘The Business of GAA’, Our GAA correspondent reports on how the amateur organisation turned into a professional conglomerate

28 August 2016: A general view of Croke Park during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
28 August 2016: A general view of Croke Park during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/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
Paraic Duffy
Dessie Farrell
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Early in 1983, Liam Mulvihill, then GAA director-general, was a worried man.

Attendances were in freefall, concerns abounded over the state of hurling and Croke Park was crumbling.

Also, the GAA was at war with the Irish Government and the British army, fighting the former over a refusal to remove rates from clubhouses and the latter over its controversial occupation of Crossmaglen Rangers’ property.

In the circumstances, Mulvihill’s comments in his annual report that “the past year had its disappointments” appeared something of an understatement.

His worries over attendances arose not just from 1982 figures but from trends over previous years, too.

Meanwhile, Croke Park was becoming increasingly dilapidated, especially the 47-year-old Cusack Stand, where the concrete was breaking away from rusty steel reinforcements.

And when patrons looked up, they saw an ugly asbestos roof, complete with all the associated health risks. Other areas were problematical, too, including behind Hill 16, which was deemed dangerous, especially in wet conditions as shown at the Dublin-Galway football final in 1983.

Two years later, three people were injured on All-Ireland hurling final day when a wall collapsed near a toilet in the Upper Hogan Stand.

It was obvious that Croke Park required a major revamp but, with crowds dwindling and a limited income stream, the challenge of financing a rebuild looked enormous.

Taking the All-Ireland football semi-finals as a reference point, Mulvihill noted that there had been a steady fall-off over a number of years.

However, the rate of decrease between 1979 to 1982 was particularly alarming, collapsing by 50pc. The nadir was reached in 1982 when the combined attendance at the Kerry v Armagh and Galway v Offaly semi-finals was only 42,000.

The All-Ireland finals weren’t challenging Croke Park’s 72,000-capacity, either, with football averaging 62,469 in 1980-82. The attendance at the 1982 hurling final (Cork v Kilkenny) was under 60,000.

Mulvihill had a blunt message for the 1983 GAA Congress. He pointed to a number of possible reasons for the drop in attendances, including a depressed economy, live coverage of GAA games and other sports on Sundays, cost of travel, increased admission prices, poor facilities and sub-standard games.

Total Central Council income for 1982 was €874,000, with gate receipts from the All-Ireland championships contributing €771,000. Last year, Central Council took in €55.7m, with the championships yielding almost €27m.

That represents an increase in overall income of 6,372pc in 33 years. By 2000, it had reached €13.4m and has increased by 416pc since then.

The story of how things changed is interesting. The days when the GAA relied on All-Ireland championship gates for most of its revenue are long gone, replaced by a slick operation which taps into corporate opportunities.

Commercial income, State funding and a dividend from Croke Park Ltd, the company that runs the stadium, brought in more money than the championships last year.

Media rights — mainly TV — alone earned €11.2m in 2015. Currently negotiating a new TV deal for 2017-19, the GAA is understood to be seeking hefty increases on the existing arrangement, which has RTÉ and Sky Sports sharing the big action.

It’s ironic that while TV coverage is now one of the major funding sources, the GAA were initially suspicious of it, fearing that ‘live’ coverage would reduce attendances.

Despite their reservations, they knew that it had to be extended beyond the All-Ireland semi-finals/finals, plus occasional other games. The fourth game in the epic Dublin-Meath Leinster championship saga in 1991 had shown that if the occasion were sufficiently attractive, ‘live’ coverage would not impact on the attendance.

Played on a glorious Saturday afternoon in July, and shown ‘live’ on RTÉ, it attracted a crowd of 61,543, only 3,000 less than for the Down-Meath All-Ireland final 10 weeks later.

Other trends in the GAA were changing, too, around then — much of which centred on modernising the business model to bring it up to international practices.

Sports sponsorship was growing rapidly worldwide but some elements in the GAA were deeply suspicious of its possible implications, fearing that it would lead to the gradual erosion of the amateur wall.

Others recognised sponsorship as a lucrative addition to the funding stream.

However, the anti-lobby were persistent. And their antennae flared into red alert when Kerry, at the behest of then manager Mick O’Dwyer, entered into an arrangement with Adidas in 1982. It ran against GAA rules which stipulated that “only Irish-made gear” could be worn by players. A stand-off arose before the All-Ireland final when Kerry were instructed not to wear Adidas jerseys against Offaly. They went ahead anyway, incurring the wrath of Croke Park but, according to O’Dwyer, it was well worth it.

“We got around £20,000 (€25,400) from Adidas that year for our holiday fund and the County Board was fined €500 (€635) so we made a nice profit,” he noted gleefully in his autobiography.

Three years later, the GAA authorities spun into apoplectic orbit again when, on the morning of the 1985 All-Ireland final, they awoke to find a picture of O’Dwyer and half-clad Kerry players featuring in full-page ads for Bendix washing machines in the Sunday papers.

Still, despite all the misgivings over how sponsorship would fit in with the GAA’s hardline stance on amateurism, it was only a matter of time before it began to play a substantial role in all GAA finances.

Sponsorship of county teams, complete with company logos, was allowed from 1991 and three years later Bank of Ireland became the first official backers of the football championships.

They were joined a year later by Guinness, who brought a really innovative approach to sponsorship of the hurling championships.

The National Leagues had been sponsored since the 1980s, with Church and General Assurance (now Allianz) taking over in 1993. That sponsorship is still in place, making it one of the longest in Irish sport.

The redevelopment of Croke Park, which began in late September 1993, was another huge influence for change in GAA finances.

Read more: Spectre of professional game moves ever closer

As the work proceeded all around the ground, it transformed from being a dreary, dated stadium into a state-of-the art arena, comparable with the best in the world.

Nowadays, it’s celebrated as the jewel in the GAA crown, a symbol of the association’s progressive thinking and courage at a time when the IRFU and FAI were dithering over their stadium requirements.

It’s a huge plus for the GAA, but the success story didn’t unfold without setbacks and frustrations and even a threat to sell Croke Park and relocate to a greenfield site.

The GAA needed to acquire ground adjacent to Croke Park to accommodate the revamp but negotiations were proving tortuously slow in what was very much a sellers’ market.

In October 1989, I interviewed Mulvihill, who after outlining the problems the GAA were experiencing with the plans, tossed in a bombshell.

“We cannot sit around and wait. We need extra space and if we cannot acquire it, then we will have to consider moving,” he said.

Was he seriously suggesting that the GAA quit Croke Park, complete with all its tradition and history?

“Obviously, we all have very strong sentimental ties with Croke Park but we have to modernise and if that means moving, so be it. You have to be prepared to take decisions that are in the best interests of the association,” he said.

He has never said whether his remarks were merely a reflection of his frustration or a clever bargaining ploy, designed to concentrate the minds of those with whom the GAA were negotiating.

Whatever his motivation, his approach had the desired effect as the necessary land was procured and, by February 1992, the GAA were in a position to announce the ambitious redevelopment project.

Twenty-four years later, Croke Park is booming. A total of 1.44 million people passed through the stadium last year for games, concerts, conferences, museum and skyline tours. Stadium income totalled €24.5m, yielding €9.1m profit.

While the stadium is a high-yield cash cow, its importance now extends to the international stage, too, as a key component in the IRFU’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

With the Aviva Stadium too small to stage a World Cup final, it would have been pointless bidding for the big rugby event without agreement from the GAA on Croke Park.

In addition, GAA grounds in Belfast (Casement Park), Castlebar (Elverys MacHale Park), Galway (Pearse Stadium), Limerick (Gaelic Grounds), Cork (Páirc Uí Chaoimh) and Thurles (Semple Stadium) are also included in the proposal.

The GAA family takes great pride in Croke Park nowadays, but views were different when the redevelopment, initially costed at £110m (€139.7m), was announced in 1992.

There were many who claimed it was dangerously overambitious to commit to a project which included expensive concepts not previously seen in Ireland.

They included corporate boxes, priced in 1992 at £15,000 (€19,050) each, as well as high-cost long-term tickets.

Critics argued that it was not in keeping with the GAA’s ethos as a community organisation, but ­Mulvihill and GAA President Peter Quinn were leading advocates for the grand plan, recognising that corporate boxes would fund much of the project.

Read more: Peter Quinn - the dreamer in chief behind revamped Croke Park

Mulvihill had always favoured an expansive redevelopment, rather than a ‘more of the same’ approach and it was a fortunate break for the GAA that Quinn’s presidency (1991-1994) coincided with the planning stages, as his expertise in high finance made him the ideal man to drive the project.

While others might have suffered from nose bleeds over the costs involved, he took it in his stride.

The GAA’s bold decision to go ahead with such a massive undertaking came at a time when the National Stadium question was still very much on the agenda. It would remain there for a long time, with Croke Park playing an important role in the on-off saga of the proposed Abbotstown project.

On the night before a proposal to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer was due to come before the GAA’s 2001 Congress, the Government announced a £60m (€76.2m) grant for the redevelopment work.

Unquestionably, it influenced the debate. Some delegates who might have supported renting it for rugby and soccer in order to generate much-needed funds were emboldened to vote against the proposal.

Even then, it was an incredibly close call, 176-89 in favour of opening up. However, it fell short of the required two-thirds majority by two votes. Bizarrely, for a decision of such importance, not only to the GAA but also to the country in terms of the National Stadium conundrum, the vote was taken on a show of hands, with tellers walking up and down aisles counting as they went.

It left plenty of room for error, yet despite the result being so close, a call for a recount was rejected.

The defeat of the proposal kept the National Stadium, dubbed the ‘Bertie Bowl’, alive, although it eventually ran aground.

Meanwhile, Lansdowne Road had fallen into serious disrepair, leaving the IRFU and FAI with a major problem.

With the National Stadium plan zapped, the only alternative was to redevelop Lansdowne Road, leaving rugby and soccer with no home ground while the work was going on.

The spotlight returned to the GAA and this time the response was positive, with a vote to open up Croke Park being accepted on a 70-30pc vote in 2005.

A total of €36m in rent money rolled into Croke Park from the IRFU and FAI for international fixtures in 2007-2010, while concerts featuring some of the world’s biggest acts continue to swell the GAA coffers.

With Croke Park stadium and a new approach to non-games-related activity contributing generously, Central Council income has soared to remarkable levels.

As for crowds, the grim days of the early 1980s — and even the 1990s — are long past. By way of comparison, total attendances at last year’s senior championships reached 1,475,949, up from 843,728 in 1995.

All-Ireland payday

Tomorrow's All-Ireland football final will generate turnover of around €15m when all the component parts of the GAA's biggest event of the year are taken into account.

Total gate revenue and match programmes from the 82,300 supporters will gross around €6.5m, with the spend for food, beverages, travelling and accommodation for the weekend estimated at €7m for those who attend the game.

In addition, pubs and hotels all around the country will do a massive trade on Sunday afternoon.

With many people coming from overseas to support Dublin and Mayo - or indeed to just enjoy the day as neutrals - airlines and ferry companies will also gain.

It brings the estimated total to at least €15m, with much of the windfall going to Dublin pubs, restaurants, hotels and taxis.

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