Thursday 21 November 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Latest Croke Park vs GPA battle has been 20 years in the making - and could decide the GAA's future'


GPA CEO Paul Flynn. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
GPA CEO Paul Flynn. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

All might appear quiet out front, but there's lots of activity behind the scenes as the GAA and the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) square up to each other in probably the most important interaction between them in the 20-year history of the inter-county players' group.

Both sides are maintaining a respectful silence, but that should not be mistaken as a sign that the ongoing negotiations are proceeding towards a harmonious outcome.

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Their latest arrangement - struck in 2016 - is coming to an end, so it's straight-talking time. Naturally, the GPA want more goodies while Croke Park, stung by criticisms of the last deal, are determined to concede as little as possible.

The current arrangement, which included the GAA giving the GPA 15 per cent of its commercial revenues, certainly wasn't universally welcomed around the country when it was announced as part of a headline figure of €6.2 million for player activities.

The GAA have argued that the figure is misleading as it includes costs that would also have been part of the arrangements between players and county boards. Nevertheless, they accepted that their involvement with the GPA is expensive.

"The Association's annual investment in the GPA is considerable," said director-general Tom Ryan last February.

And, in a clear reference to future negotiations, he said the GAA's relationship with the GPA "needs to evolve beyond that of being purely a funder and towards being a partner".

The last deal was hailed by both sides as a major advance. The GPA were thrilled with the commercial revenue breakthrough, especially since it came with a guarantee that the figure would be no less than €2.5m.

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Many GAA members were surprised by what they regarded as a serious mistake to concede a percentage, while also guaranteeing a minimum €2.5m pay-out if commercial income dropped.

They feared that once a percentage was stitched into the arrangement, demands for an increase would emerge at every renegotiation. And, once that concession was made, how long would it be before the GPA agitated for a share of gate money?

Dessie Farrell, then GPA CEO, described the deal as a "historic milestone".

Three years on, another ex-Dublin player, Paul Flynn, is leading the GPA as it seeks to squeeze more from the Croke Park coffers.

How far can the GAA go without alienating members who believe that the GPA is elitist and interested only in how much they can get for two per cent of the playing population?

Of course, the players are also the main financial drivers, a point Flynn (left) emphasised last August.

"Eighty per cent of revenue generated comes from inter-county games, which is fantastic because we're able to invest a lot back into the clubs, grassroots and coaching. That's the beauty of the GAA, but equally players can't pay to play. They have to be supported in cost reimbursement."

Question is: how much is fair? There has been unease in many counties over various cost increases in recent years.

One county treasurer complained of having to play mileage to players, who travelled together to training in various groups. Conversely, Flynn has spoken about county boards not fulfilling their obligations to players.

"People think all inter-county players are in receipt of expenses and a nutrition allowance. By the book, they are, but they're not getting paid the right expenses at all times or in a timely fashion," he said.

That's relatively easy to sort out, but his remarks on longer-range issues certainly attracted attention in Croke Park. He appeared to imply that some form of professionalism couldn't be ruled out. The case for direct payments was further enhanced by the findings of an ESRI report which estimated than an inter-county player can devote up to 31 hours per week to GAA activities.

The stark ESRI findings provided a boost for those who believe that some form of pay-for-play should be pursued sooner rather than later.

Longer-term strategists believe that it makes more sense to lobby for indirect payments in the form of expenses and allowances. Apart from keeping the emotive pay-for-play term off the agenda, those payments have no tax implications.

The latest negotiations are well-advanced, but it's understood that there are still a number of key sticking points.

And they could get stickier before there's a grand declaration about walking together into the new decade. That's if it happens at all.

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