Friday 20 September 2019

Tax refund raises too many issues to be viable way of rewarding players

Mayo's Chris Barrett. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo's Chris Barrett. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ciarán Medlar

Mayo footballer Chris Barrett recently spoke about the time commitment and sacrifices made by senior inter-country players to balance their work and sporting careers. He also raised a question as to whether some form of monetary incentive should be introduced to recognise the contribution inter-county GAA players make to the game - and to summers - in Ireland.

As we reach the culmination of the All-Ireland competitions, with large attendances descending on Croke Park every weekend to watch the defining moments of both the men's and ladies' championships, many see this as a timely and legitimate question.

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The economic impact of senior league and championship games throughout the provinces is significant and it has been widely suggested that players should receive a share of some of the money being generated.

One suggestion put forward is for government to introduce a new tax credit or refund system for senior inter-county players, along the lines of the current tax relief already available to some professional athletes when they retire. This idea has found support from some high-profile ex-players including Kieran Donaghy and Alan Brogan, who believe it is worth further consideration.

Recently on these pages, Paul Kimmage offered an alternative view that GAA players are already recognised for their contribution in a variety of ways including a government contribution of €7m to the Gaelic Players' Association over the last three years for reimbursement of expenses, travel, career and education programmes. He also highlighted that some players also receive income from off-field commercial activity and sponsorships.

As a starting point, the GAA was built and still thrives on its amateur ethos and there is a fear that any monetary gain, such as a tax break, would be a step too far and would ultimately result in full professionalism.

As a result, it is extremely challenging to strike the right balance between recognising the great contribution made by players without impacting the core ethos of the organisation.

In my opinion, a tax relief system would be extremely difficult to implement for a number of reasons.

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Firstly, as the players are not paid to play, any relief introduced would be linked to the players' other sources of income. This would create a hierarchy of who benefits and by how much.

The demographic of inter-county players has, for the most part, moved towards younger players in recent years, many of whom are still students with low or no income. This would thereby reduce or eliminate the value of any relief for a large proportion of players.

Secondly, who would qualify for this relief? Would it only be senior-inter-county men and women only or would under-20s and minor players also be included? Just under 20,000 people showed up to watch Tipperary play Cork in the under-20s All-Ireland hurling final, so surely underage players would also have to be considered if one of the main arguments for introducing a tax incentive is the economic benefit contributed by Gaelic games.

There are several other circumstances that require consideration when looking at how to structure a potential tax relief. Would the relief just be applicable to players that are part of a squad for a certain number of games? Or would it only be valid for games that attract in excess of a set attendance?

Similarly, would the relief only be available to counties that reach the latter stages of a competition? If so, the relief would provide an imbalance towards the larger counties and those with a history of success, such as Kerry, Dublin, Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny. Players from these counties would be the biggest winners while those playing for smaller counties, equally as committed, would see marginal returns compared to more successful counties.

It is clear that to set the bar at any level would mean certain people could be unintentionally excluded, or the relief awarded to some would be diminished.

Another major stumbling block is that the GAA operates on an all-island basis but has two different tax systems for those living in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Players playing for counties in Northern Ireland are most likely subject to UK taxation and it would be highly unfair if such players were treated differently.

It is also unlikely that a tax relief could be introduced for one amateur sport only. There would be calls for the relief to be extended to other amateur and semi-professional sports such as boxing, soccer and golf.

It is incorrect to say that the economic contribution is totally forgotten when you look at the funding that has been given to the GAA and its player associations in recent years. State funding for the GAA is roughly €5m per year with €7.5m going to the GPA (over three years).

This is significant when you compare it to the recently frozen funding for the FAI of €2.9m per year.

I believe recognition of senior inter-county players' commitment and input to the economic success of GAA competitions can only be given centrally through the GPA and WGPA.

Both associations use these funds to provide the relevant support for players' careers, education, health, and life development. Therefore, the question that should be explored is whether the amount currently given through Government grant aid sufficiently recognises the players' contribution or whether more needs to be given.

The GAA are against pay for play and giving individual monetary incentives would blur those lines. By contributing in a collective way, it will help preserve the amateur status of the games even at the highest level.

Ciarán Medlar is Partner, Head of Sports Advisory, BDO Ireland

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