Wednesday 16 October 2019

Joe Brolly: AIB, Sky and other brands will complete cultural hijacking of the GAA if new Director General doesn't act


Con O’Callaghan and Sky mentors Carla Rowe and Darran O’Sullivan were at the announcement of Sky Sports’ grassroots partnership with the GAA. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan and Sky mentors Carla Rowe and Darran O’Sullivan were at the announcement of Sky Sports’ grassroots partnership with the GAA. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The fundamental task of the new Director General will be to redraw the boundary between the ideals of the GAA and the commercial world.

If he doesn't, we are fucked. It is of course pointless to mourn for an idealised past. The present tense is all that matters. The GAA must make strong commercial agreements. But we must make them on our terms, based on our principles. The dog must wag the tail.

Make no mistake, the end game is upon us. The failure over the last 20 years to draw up a modern fit-for-purpose constitution defining what we are, and what our relationship is with the outside world, has created a void which the brands have galloped into. The GAA is in the middle of a hostile takeover bid. But this bid is unprecedented in corporate history, since the GAA hierarchy is actively encouraging it.

The key for any brand is to create an emotional connection with the consumer. In Ireland, this means infiltrating the GAA. With no resistance from the hierarchy, the corporations are invading us at a startling pace. The banks are rehabilitating themselves. Never mind the homelessness, the misery and the daily evictions.

AIB brought two well-known Sky presenters to last year's All-Ireland football final as part of their 'Toughest' advertising campaign. They make cute videos for YouTube and they both generally come across as wholesome all-round good guys.

The trick is to buy elite players' loyalty, make them brand ambassadors, give them sugary, hand-shaking jobs like the partners of England's princes, and create images of them holding hurls or size 5s in the midst of crowds of smiling children.

This is a good way to deflect from reality. Go stand outside the High Court some Monday morning. Watch AIB's legal team at work. Watch the distraught families leaving court having been told they've lost their homes. The street? A hostel? A cheap hotel? Is that tough? Tougher? The toughest?

They are merely one of a number of corporations who are taking over real control of the GAA. Why wouldn't they? It is, after all, very smart business. And when you can be bought as cheaply as we are being bought, it's a no-brainer.

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To the hierarchy, the games are now 'a product'. It is striking how often our leaders have used this description over the last decade. This is music to corporate ears since, if the GAA is nothing more than a product, then it has a price and it can be bought. Brand experts refer to what is happening with the GAA as 'cultural expansionism'. The idea is not for the corporation to simply sponsor some event or other, but for the corporation to become so entwined with the culture that it eventually becomes the culture.

This is a process that has been documented in countless American studies. For example, Nike is now so enmeshed in basketball in the United States that it is not just an indispensable part of basketball culture, it is the culture. Nike elite basketball camps have become the gateway to college basketball and the NBA. They are televised on prime time. The Nike swoosh is everywhere. They sponsor the basketball programmes of over 250 universities. The corporation infiltrated the poverty-stricken black neighbourhoods by handing out free basketball shoes and kitting out public courts, with the swoosh emblazoned everywhere of course.

Now, they are the major player in US basketball, so influential that at one point they even considered replacing the NBA. Instead, they decided to sponsor all NBA merchandise. Swoosh! Nike understood that the best way to sell basketball shoes was to become basketball. It worked. Their 2017 revenue exceeded $34 billion.

In Ireland, we see the same process happening. Sky, with the support of the hierarchy, have already taken a third of the live games away from the vast majority of what Croke Park calls 'consumers'. Sky knows it cannot and will not win over the current adult GAA generations. Last year, in Ireland, when 1.35 million viewers watched the football final on RTE, just over 2,000 watched it on Sky.

Sky's strategy is smart. Forget the adults, go after the youth. As part of this carefully planned invasion of young hearts and minds, they have systematically bought a stable of elite 'mentors', which kills three birds with one stone. It buys off the elite end of the game, as a result it gets the full support of the entirely capitalist GPA, and finally it plays very well with the younger generation, who see their handsome, smiling heroes branded from head to foot in Sky bolloxology - 'Sky Believe in better', 'Sky SPORTS living for Sport' and all the rest of it.

This is only one limb of the process. At the end of October 2017, the GAA unveiled what is described on Sky's website as "a five-year partnership with the GAA on three key grassroots initiatives." Sky will pay for 'Super Games Centres' where "Sky's world class elite sportspeople will visit to meet participants and contribute to activities there." At the launch, Sky Sports mentors Con O'Callaghan and Carla Rowe took part in Q&A sessions with 300 excited children, shipped in for the occasion. Sky also launched their GAA Youth Forum, to be held annually at Croke Park, where its mentors (Cora Staunton, Brendan Maher, Paul Geaney, etc) gush about Sky amidst a sea of Sky branding.

This €3m over five years is bafflingly/wafflingly described as an investment in "Grass Roots GAA". It is of course nothing of the sort. Sky contributes nothing to the daily toil of running clubs. This is nothing more than a series of branding events, an essential part of the process of cultural hijacking.

Another crucial component in this process (used in America with stunning success by Nike, adidas and others) is to infiltrate the schools. This in turn is being achieved by Sky through another branding exercise, called the Sky Sports Living For Sport programme. There is a video on Sky's website of Sky mentor Bernard Brogan, our very own Becks, visiting St Kevin's School in Dublin. Bernard explains to camera that "the school signed up for Sky Sports' Living for Sport and their reward is a masterclass with me".

All the kids are wearing shirts emblazoned with Sky and its logos in block capitals, front and rear. Bernard is so heavily branded he looks like a lifesize Sky mascot, the sort you see prancing up and down the sidelines at Premier League soccer matches exhorting the crowd to cheer. If this is a masterclass, then he should avoid football management.

The kids do a really boring session to camera. A bog-standard hand-passing drill, followed by a kicking drill, followed by some shooting. At the end, a Sky employee asks one young person "what have you learned?" He says: "Always listen to Bernard." To our generation, it's an empty branding exercise, but it works with the young.

As clothing retailer Elise Decoteau said of teenagers, "They run in packs. If you sell to one, you sell to everyone in their class, and everyone in their school." Soon, you've sold whatever you're selling to every kid in the country. Which is precisely what is happening.

Sky are only interested in selling boxes, just as Nike are only interested in selling shoes and gear. Already they have been remarkably successful. Out of a total Irish market size of approximately €1bn (comprising subscription, advertising, and public funding), Sky already take around €400m in both subscription and advertising. Virgin take around €200m, and the rest (eir, TV3, TG4 and RTE) fight over the scraps.

Another linked part of the problem is the almost complete absence of journalistic criticism. Any journalist who criticises the GPA will soon find he or she is denied access. The comedian and mimic Conor Moore of Conor's Sketches fame was hired by the GPA to perform at their gala fundraising dinner in Croke Park on the weekend of the 2017 All-Ireland final.

A few days before the event, he got a call from the GPA informing him that he could not do his celebrated impersonations of either Colm O'Rourke or myself and that if he was intending to, his services would no longer be required. We were personae non gratae, not to be mentioned. Conor, a good GAA man, thought initially he was being pranked, but when he realised the GPA was deadly serious, he told them where they could stick their event.

Sky, meanwhile, are systematically stifling dissent by buying the media, placing expensive ads with a struggling sector. A well known sports journalist and friend often texts me lengthy critiques of Sky and the profound damage it is doing to the GAA. I suggested he should write the columns. He told me he would like to but couldn't, as Sky are important advertisers.

Outside of O'Rourke and me, who criticises Sky? Instead, it is Rose of Tralee-style coverage. This is because Sky has bombarded the media with expensive advertising. If you put your head above the parapet, as Paul Kimmage found when he was with The Sunday Times, it is liable to be chopped off. 'Believing in better' does not include the concept of critical analysis.

So, Sky's market share will continue to grow. Instead of the GAA doing Sky and the other corporations a favour by permitting them to sponsor the jewel of Irish sports, the GAA will come to feel dependent on them. The younger generation will see Sky as part and parcel of the GAA. Pay per view will be the norm. Sky will in time become the sole provider of live inter-county GAA. The cultural resistance will be broken by then and the highest bidder will win. The elite game will become something entirely separate, a process that is already at an advanced stage.

How long before we have the Sky GAA Super League, involving the top eight teams? With the GPA and its corporate partners championing the Fenway Classic series in Boston, and the GAA blindly hanging onto its coat-tails, pretending that it was really their idea, what's to stop the top players being contracted to Sky, touring America to play the big Irish cities, playing super four or super eight tournaments? Make no mistake, it's all coming down the tracks.

The hierarchy has been entirely reactive over the last 15 years. As a result, there are umpteen Trojan horses inside the Association. The GPA came into being because the GAA neglected player welfare. We now pay this secretive, private corporation €2.8m a year because the hierarchy can't think of a better idea. Sky and others are likewise at the heart of the Association, buying it piece by piece. The GAA hierarchy presents each new deal as 'a partnership', when it is the corporate world that is wearing the trousers. Like Donald Trump's wife standing beside him at the podium, the role of the GAA leadership is to smile, nod and agree.

The corporations are myth-making machines. They peddle the illusion that they are at one with the culture, when in fact they are systematically destroying it. If the new Director General doesn't see through this, the GAA community will soon be finished off by the brands, and the last great amateur community organisation in the world will disappear.

The kids won't mind of course, and the journalists won't mention it. They'll just be relieved to get accreditation for the Super Eight Series at Sky Park on Jones' Road, exclusively live on Sky Sports. Believe in better? You better believe it.

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