Sport GAA

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Amateur code could be on the road to extinction as Flynn hints at pay-for-play'

Analysis

Wexford hurler Lee Chin has talked about the GAA moving closer to a pay-for-play model. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford hurler Lee Chin has talked about the GAA moving closer to a pay-for-play model. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

They start in Ruislip and Gaelic Park tomorrow and, if last year's trends are maintained, they will have grossed €36million in gate receipts by football final day on September 1. That's an average of almost €2.1m per week, accumulated by the All-Ireland and provincial hurling and football championships.

Of course, that's not the full financial story of the summer campaigns as most of the GAA's media coverage income (€14.5m last year) derives from the championships too.

Dublin footballer Philly McMahon has talked about the GAA moving closer to a pay-for-play model. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin footballer Philly McMahon has talked about the GAA moving closer to a pay-for-play model. Photo: Sportsfile

And then there's commercial revenue (Central Council took in €19.6m in 2018) and other income streams. Most of it goes back through the many and varied channels into provincial councils, counties and clubs.

Still, it's the headline figures which always attract most attention, not least among inter-county players, who are the main drivers in the financial powerhouse.

It used to be quite straightforward. Players played, administrators administered and the public paid for the privilege of watching. It was all done under the motto: 'we are amateur', which is still very much the official position.

However, times are changing rapidly, the degree to which was underlined in stark terms by comments from GPA CEO, Paul Flynn in an interview last weekend.

"The amateur ethos of the GAA is important and it's important to our members. However, at the same time, when we ask our members - and we constantly survey them on issues - semi-professionalism is something that they would be interested in.

"There's an important distinction between that and full-time professionalism. Define amateurism as well. We have amateur athletes who represent us at Olympics, but they are in receipt of funding and they train full-time. So amateur and semi-professionalism, it's a grey area between them both anyway."

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Flynn's retirement from inter-county football was covered extensively during the week but, even allowing for his longevity and quality as a Dublin player, his departure wasn't anywhere near as significant as his remarks on what the future GAA might look like.

Semi-professionalism? "Something that they (players) would be interested in."

Amateur and semi-professional? "It's a grey area."

Now, if those remarks didn't send alarm bells ringing in Croke Park, then it's probably time to fit a new security system.

This was the GPA CEO openly implying that the mood among players was shifting towards some form of pay-for-play, while also stating that a principle previously regarded as sacrosanct had become a 'grey area'.

It's no surprise, of course. Comments by players on rewards for what they do have grown increasingly hawkish in recent years.

Dublin footballer Philly McMahon suggested last year that there could be a two- or three-month period where squads would go part-time and get higher expenses.

"The further they go, the more expenses they get," he said. Which, presumably, would suit Dublin, who have reached six of the last eight All-Ireland finals.

Lee Chin (Wexford) talked of a "semi-professional status, the same as the League of Ireland".

Damien Comer (Galway) said he could see the GAA going semi-professional, although not during his career.

"You see the money that's generated on All-Ireland semi-finals and final days where there's eighty-odd thousand in Croke Park," he said.

Reigning Footballer of the Year Brian Fenton, of Dublin, proposed payments as a means of persuading players, whose teams were knocked out of the championship early on, to remain at home rather than heading to the US for the summer.

"The GAA is not short of money," he offered by way of explanation for what would effectively be payment for doing nothing.

Cork footballer Michael Shields said that while he wasn't calling for professionalism, he could see it coming, "especially with the demands that are out there".

There have been plenty of others, too, who represent a generation challenging conventional GAA norms.

That was always going to happen, with or without the GPA. What makes it so significant now is that the GPA appears to be preparing to remove another layer of bricks from an amateur wall that has already taken some heavy hits.

When rugby went professional in 1995, things changed dramatically for the GAA.

Prior to that, they could point to the oval ball as a major international sport that had clung to amateurism, albeit with a weakening grip.

When that bulwark was removed, the GAA was left exposed. Indeed, it's surprising that it has taken this long for the real pressure to begin.

The various GPA/GAA deals sufficed for a period but, as the current one comes to an end, there's no guarantee that a replacement which satisfies all sides can be found.

That's because the model may no longer be workable, as the GPA strive to squeeze more for their members and Croke Park desperately struggle to hold the line.

The big question is when do allowances, expenses and perks such as exotic holidays became a form of payment, perhaps even carrying tax implications.

Obviously, the GPA are anxious to avoid that, but if they get an even better deal, it may not be possible to avoid tax. That, in turn, would spark further demands.

From a purely dispassionate viewpoint, it's difficult to be critical of players who favour a move to semi-professionalism.

The demands being placed on players are greater than ever before, and they show no signs of dropping off any time soon.

They also know that others are being paid. By their own admission, the GAA have been unable to curb payments to managers, and while not all are in that category, there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it's still quite an industry.

Others within camps are also being paid for their services, adding to frustrations among players.

Ironically, the GAA's success represents the biggest threat to amateurism, even in the loosest sense of the word.

Thirty years ago, Central Council's income was €2.7m. By 2000, it had climbed to €13.4 million. Last year it was €63.5m.

Given those figures, it's inevitable that players will look for a bigger slice of the cake. There's a natural momentum to it which cannot be resisted indefinitely.

How it is administered remains the great imponderable, since clearly it would have serious consequences for the GAA if proper controls were not in place.

Former GAA President, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, stated in an Irish Independent interview three years ago that any form of professionalism could never be entertained.

"If someone came in with €10billion to fund payments to players for the next 100 years, we'd refuse it. Pay-for-play would destroy our association. We are an amateur organisation, rooted in the community. That's the core principle, the vision we have to keep us rock solid," he said.

Judging by Paul Flynn's comments, it's far from being that simple anymore.

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