Thursday 22 February 2018

Spreading the GAA gospel to a truly global audience

Just how far can hurling and football really be promoted in the World's sporting market?

Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney with hurling analyst James O'Connor in their studio before the Kilkenny v Offaly game last summer
Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney with hurling analyst James O'Connor in their studio before the Kilkenny v Offaly game last summer

Christy O'Connor

Over the last few weeks, Stephanie Roche's name has rightly dominated the Irish sporting scene. A couple of moments of absolute and outrageous genius transported her on to a global stage with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, James Rodriquez and Robin van Persie.

Yet after the Ballon d'Or awards concluded on Monday night, Roche said that she had "done so much stuff that I wouldn't have done if the goal hadn't been videoed".

The Irish sporting public were also grateful that there was a camera present so that Roche was rightly accorded the acclaim she deserved.

Domestically, Irish soccer doesn't have anything like the same coverage or sporting presence as the GAA, ranging from participation, community-place, attendances and TV audiences.

Indigenous sports can never hope to share a similar stage with a global product but on numerous occasions at last Saturday's GAA Annual Coaching Conference, hurling was referred to as "the greatest field sport in the world".

Individual genius in an indigenous sport will never gain the same traction on a wider stage that certain brilliance may merit, largely through a lack of appreciation. Would hurling people be impressed by some of the combination play and finishing in lacrosse?

Nobody expects GAA to compete with soccer but do the games deserve greater recognition on a global stage? The word 'deserve' is irrelevant in global sport marketing terms but in an increasingly competitive market-place, there is a strong belief that hurling can reach a wider audience.

With Sky Sports and GAAGO now showcasing Gaelic games to a global market, hurling and football have a new promotional platform. However, with that greater global broadcasting and marketing platform in place, what is potentially possible?

Strengthening Global Base

On Thursday morning, Pat Daly, Croke Park's head of coaching, attended a meeting at the Department of Foreign Affairs with all the Irish Ambassadors. One of the core themes which emerged was that the GAA remains the main conduit in connecting Irish people abroad.

The base is organically growing at a massive rate but North America is clearly the most fertile ground, with 92 affiliated clubs (excluding the 40 clubs in New York). The GAA provide as much back-up as they can with equipment but the coaching structure has to develop from within.

"The only thing that grows the game is coaching," says Paudie Butler. "Plus, it's a real-live experience for young Americans who have no connection to Ireland.

"Let the game stand on its own merits, not because it is ours. There is endless potential there."

The climate is even more fertile with many US High Schools embracing a different sport as part of their PE programme. Given the massive step-up required for latecomers to hurling, the GAA have been trying to develop an introductory game with a mix between hurling/hockey/shinty.

"It seems to really appeal to girls' indoor hockey," says Daly. "Once we codify the rules, I'd be optimistic that we will have a game we can roll out and run with this time next year."

In mainland Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia, there are now 176 affiliated GAA clubs. One hundred games were played in last year's North American finals in Boston.

"The lady from Washington (ambassador)," says Daly, "said to me, 'Surely hurling could have the same impact as Riverdance if you could get it onto mainstream TV'."

Greater Connectivity

Cracking mainstream TV is the golden pursuit to growing the GAA brand internationally. "It's a step by step process but GAAGO is the biggest step we've ever made in terms of getting our games on mainstream television," says Noel Quinn, GAA media rights manager. GAAGO was launched eight months ago; it is a pay service from the GAA and RTE that allows GAA followers outside the Republic of Ireland watch games via the internet.

Subscribers can stream and watch games in high definition on their desktop computer, laptop, tablet or mobile device.

GAAGO has rights to more than 100 games during the 2015 GAA season, which includes league, U-21 and club matches. "This could be the code to help grow the games internationally," says Quinn.

"I don't think there has ever been a platform as readily available for our members, and for people who have never experienced our games."

Freestyle Focus

If you flick onto YouTube and access Joe Canning's reverse handpass against Cork in 2011, it has already got 154,460 hits. And that's just one of six different clips and postings on the same handpass.

With hurling, there was clearly an opening to develop greater global awareness around the game. In the last two years, the Freestyle Hurling initiative - which captures the imagination of young players by encouraging them to video their own freestyle hurling skills and post them on YouTube - has been hugely popular.

Spreading the gospel on hurling's unique skills can only reach so far. Yet with increased access to multi-media, encouraging the forum for greater expression via the GAA social media community could also incrementally raise the game's profile on a bigger stage.

"We have to look at what kids are doing and how they are communicating," says Lisa Clancy, GAA director of communications. "We have to adapt to that. We need to be thinking outside the box."

Taking the game abroad

The NFL (American Football) routinely like to call the Super Bowl 'The greatest show on Turf'. The game has a big playing presence in Europe, but bringing NFL games to London's Wembley Stadium has rapidly expanded the market in recent years. There are already three NFL games pencilled in for next season.

At last year's Dublin-Donegal All-Ireland football semi-final, Eoin Conroy, director of Titan Marketing, who specialise in sports marketing and promotion, sat beside Eric Dickerson (who holds the single season rushing record in the NFL).

"He was absolutely blown away," says Conroy.

The GAA have regularly used the All-Stars tours as a means of promoting the games around the globe, while in 2013, the Super Hurling 11s concept was played at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Yet all those games are exhibition matches. "Can you imagine a big Championship hurling or football game - even a league final - taking place in London or Chicago?" says Conroy.

"Its blue-sky thinking but the potential could be huge in terms of promotion to an international audience. For the NFL series at Wembley, the NFL select regular season match-ups that are ultra-competitive and avoid the blow-outs which dogged the series initially."

Other avenues could also be explored even closer to home, especially when the championship's peak time of August-September is in prime-time holiday-tourist season.

"In recent seasons, there has been significant spare capacity at Croke Park at certain stages purely due to the capacity of Croke Park," says Conroy.

"There has to be opportunities here in terms of driving awareness of our games internationally and making them a key part of an international tourists visit and holiday plans."

Last February, Conroy attended the Super Bowl in New York. He was also at the drawn All-Ireland hurling final.

"The greatest show on turf?" says Conroy, when comparing the two. "No contest."

No explanation needed.

Irish Independent

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