Tightrope walker who rarely slipped
Páraic Duffy had a lot of fires to put out during his tenure, but he could fan the flames as well
In his final annual report, while defending the GAA's commercial dealings, director general Páraic Duffy has a pop at "purists" which offers a little insight into how much the tone has changed in the higher echelons of the organisation. Not too long ago, reference to a purist by a director general of the GAA would have been dripping with approval. Croke Park was an unapologetically warm house for purists. They were regarded as staunch disciples, ideological and principled, whereas now this type of Gael no longer appears couture.
How Duffy found himself on the other side of this debate, on the defensive, is a small wonder and a curious ideological realignment. How disturbing that shift should be regarded forms an ongoing argument among the membership. Duffy would claim some fears are being overplayed. He would dismiss claims he has lost touch with the grassroots. He leaves at the end of March after ten years as director general to return to his native Monaghan where he expects to go back to being the volunteer of old. But his time in office has seen the GAA struggle to preserve old values in the face of commercial and corporate pressures and obligations.
Some of the criticism of Duffy has been unfair and borderline hysterical as if he were some nefarious demon, or incompetent, unravelling the work of 134 years in his relative short time in power. Carroll's sponsored the All Stars once upon a time and nobody thought anything of it. Drink and betting are embedded in GAA sponsorship and life, and that gets a free pass too. Banks, contemptible as many of those institutions have been and the people who ran them, did not arrive today or yesterday as a sponsor option either.
The GAA at all levels has had to source income and still does, needed to fund capital projects and coaching and games development. As a sporting organisation, competing with other rivals, it is in the market fighting for a healthy share. How much is enough and how much is too much could be argued over forever without ever finding a satisfactory answer.
The fears expressed of the GAA hurtling toward some commercial Armageddon makes for a vivid and terrifying vision. It plays on the most basic fears. Some of those are valid. Some are questionable. In Duffy's later years the Sky deal came to overshadow much of the other work that went on and fed the impression of a growing disenfranchisement of the GAA population, driven by money. The arrival of a wily and experienced operator like Sky set off alarm bells in some quarters, understandably, but Duffy has argued that supporters still see a large number of games free-to-air and those exclusive to Sky (14) have not increased in number.
But for some the removal of any games from free-to-air, placed behind a paywall, crossed an ethical line that the GAA should not have felt compelled to cross. There was a principle at stake. The message which followed the initial three-year deal in 2014 did little to reassure those fears. Sky was brought in from the cold, after earlier bids were turned down, in order to increase coverage of the games for members abroad. Least that is what we were told. As it turned out, in Britain the games were already available at a third of the cost of a Sky monthly subscription. The upshot was reduced availability and higher cost; not what the GAA spin was claiming. The GAA handled that part of the episode poorly and should have come clean.
There was a lack of open debate on the matter which rankled. The financial benefit, Duffy maintained, of Sky's arrival wasn't a huge incentive. They look to have been swayed by the potential of broadening the audience and Sky's potential to promote the GAA brand. Low viewing figures quickly showed that to be wishful thinking. Instead they received criticism for reducing free access to matches for the people at home. When the Clare v Limerick Munster hurling championship semi-final in 2017 was only available on Sky there was uproar. It has not been a universally popular decision, even though Duffy pointed to Congress approving the deal two years ago as more representative of the membership position.
A proposal from Dublin to Congress that all championship matches be broadcast free-to-air and that the subscription-viewing contract with Sky Sports for certain championship matches not be renewed failed. The GAA signed a new deal which takes them to 2022. By then the new director general will have a call to make. But the idea of the GAA increasing its broadcasting rights muscle goes back to before Duffy took over, being one of the recommendations of the Strategy Review Committee report in 2002. TV3 was sidelined after six years, Duffy being part of the negotiating team which deemed that Sky would make the bidding war more competitive and raise the value for the GAA, eventually filtering back down to the grassroots member. It was also seen as a way of inspiring a more creative and willing RTE, who had for a long time enjoyed a dominance of the market.
The GAA needs to ensure that this level of reliance on Sky doesn't become the tipping point in future deals, a challenge that faces Duffy's successor. Sky may be tolerated by many of the membership but perhaps only in smaller doses. Any extension of their slice of the market could undoubtedly cause a stronger reaction.
Finding suitable business partners is desirable but there are always compromises. The alliance can look strained at times and even the advertising of the position of Duffy's successor gave an unsettling impression of an Association still grappling with these concerns and perhaps at odds with itself and how it wants to be perceived.
Originally, applicants were required to have a business qualification. A causal look around most leading GAA administrators would tell you there aren't too many graduates of the Smurfit business school knocking about. And then the job description was changed, with the business qualification no longer deemed necessary. GAA members are entitled to know what was going on there. Who decided the qualification was needed initially and why? Who decided later it was not and why?
Whereas not too long ago the GAA was accused of being too plodding and conservative, now the charge being levelled is that it has lost the run of itself in some respects. It has sold out by taking the corporate pound and placed too much emphasis on commercial income streams. That is undoubtedly harsh and opportunistic criticism. The onset of the Super 8 this year has also hardened that impression of a GAA spending an inordinate amount of time catering to the game's elite, with a huge coaching and development funding commitment to Dublin which enjoys massive population advantage over all other counties.
The football championship has been an issue for a long time, back to the McNamee report in 1971, with the provincial system proving an ongoing impediment when striving for a more streamlined competition. The Super 8 has been introduced to try to provide a more intensive and interesting championship and one with greater variation than the often predictable narratives that see Kerry, to use one popular example, coasting into the quarter-finals without raising much of a puff. It does leave a huge constituency outside that top eight who are feeling alienated and less valued. Duffy has recognised that those counties have shown little appetite for a secondary competition but this will have to be tackled more aggressively in the next administration. The current system is a bit of a mess and the justification for counties spending the large amounts they do in preparations is wearing increasingly thin. Meaningful competition for the bottom 16 counties is urgently required.
Duffy has said that the GAA is already making moves to tackle the funding inequality in coaching where Dublin is strongly supported and initiatives have been started in other Leinster counties to increase the number of coaches available through a partnership arrangement between the clubs and the GAA. The decision to focus on Dublin, however, was taken before Duffy took office. In recent years their success has cast a critical light on this spend as being too advantageous. "Dublin has employed a huge number of coaches in the last number of years," Duffy admitted a couple of years ago. "Of course we are trying to get the balance right, but it will take time. But we also cannot expect to treat Dublin the same as we would very other county, given the population."
The Strategic Review Committee identified a need to build up market share in Dublin 16 years ago, fearful of the GAA's position and the potential for losing ground to soccer and rugby. Central Council, the Leinster Council and the Government, then headed by Bertie Ahern, began an investment which funded games promotion officers, splitting the costs with clubs. Dublin didn't win an All-Ireland until 2011 but their rampant success since then has led to an outcry that other counties are being left behind and not treated with the urgency required. In effect, the charge is that the GAA has created a monster in Dublin and the rest, with a few exceptions, are left trailing. The next director general will have that on his or her lap too.
Commercial revenue will remain an essential part of the day-to-day running of the GAA, irrespective of who takes over. It is doubtful that much, on any policy front, will change. "The calls on our revenue from our units are enormous and unending, and . . . we must compete vigorously to maintain the public's loyalty to our games," Duffy said in 2015. Around 80 per cent of its revenue is put back into the Association. "It is a simple reality that we need the income derived from concerts, sponsorship, broadcast rights and other events . . . (and) the GAA does not have the lucrative revenue sources of international competitions, such as World Cups, available to soccer and rugby in Ireland," he added,
His work on trying to rebalance the relationship between club and county through reshaping the fixtures calendar should prove beneficial despite criticisms. April is a helpful window now that it is clear of inter-county matches, although there will be pressure brought to bear by county managers who have championship games the following month.
Duffy says the onus is on county boards to stand firm. It is not something for which they are renowned when challenged by county managers; it remains to be seen how that pans out. There will be more time granted by the earlier All-Ireland final dates and eventually Duffy wants to see all fixtures completed in the one calendar year. His successor must find a way of finishing this job. More importantly, there needs to be a stronger line taken by county boards in catering for the needs of club players, even if it is at odds with the demands of the county manager who has enjoyed excessive privilege. The GAA has lost its way on that score.
Another important episode in Duffy's time, though it has led to much controversy, has been the emergence of the black card, an honest attempt to crack down on the pandemic of cynical fouling. There are wildly differing views on its merits and even the strongest proponents have accepted that there has been serious difficulty with consistency and enforcement. But the principle remains strong and worthy and blights like deliberate obstruction have been virtually eradicated. With some tweaking and greater clarity it has a future and immense value, and reflects well on Duffy's leadership. It is important that his successor has the same conviction.
The successor will also have to decide what kind of relationship the GAA has with the GPA and the CPA. Duffy had a long track record in player welfare before becoming director general. He was not a novice in the field. While the outlay on the GPA appears high, the GAA is satisfied that the relationship is now more settled and healthy and can reap positive dividends. Another fire put out. But, being the GAA, there will always be a few more ready to light up.
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