Cash-starved teams gear up to secure commercial break
Multiple sponsorship on team jerseys may soon become a reality, writes Dermot Crowe
A LMOST 20 years after the GAA granted permission for sponsors' brands and logos to appear on club and county jerseys, a motion will go before Congress next Saturday seeking further concessions. If successful, more than one sponsor could be appearing on the shirt of your favourite team, perhaps on the collar, or the sleeve, as well as the traditional route across the midriff. Meath club Trim have formulated the motion because of a difficulty in attracting commercial revenue solely from one source.
For those who opposed sponsors' branding when introduced on the back of a Dublin motion in 1991, this will be another indication of the unruly and unstoppable tide of commercialism. To them, Mammon will never have enough. Dark visions emerge of county colours graffitied by garish advertising. But those in favour argue that it can be done without selling the GAA's soul or sacrificing aesthetics, and if it is not then clubs and counties will pay the financial cost in the years ahead.
Advocating the reform is Brendan Dempsey, the former Meath chairman, a member of the Trim GAA club and a former Central Council delegate. "It is to increase income in these hard times for county committees and for clubs," he explains. "In other words, instead of being only allowed to have one sponsor, you could have three or four. I would not be one for allowing 20 sponsors but I feel we need to do something.
"I know even the local junior rugby club here, they have my (business) name on their sleeves and they may get two or three grand for that and they have a name on front and they're getting maybe six (grand) for that and four (grand) for the collar. It's just to move into the modern era. What I want is to loosen that (GAA) rule and the (GAA) marketing people can look at it and consider where they might place the extra logos. I am not talking about a walking billboard. We are in very constrained times -- it is a way of increasing the source of revenue."
Trim, who field senior football and hurling teams, don't have a sponsor and haven't had one since a lucrative tie-in with Lagan Cement that finished a couple of years ago. The Meath county football team also lost its sponsor late last year, when the Menolly Homes withdrew. That sponsorship, it's believed, more than covered the €200,000 cost of running the football team. The sponsor that has filled the void, The Comer Group, has agreed terms for two years.
The problem will be in two years' time when the deal is up for renewal and the economy reality may begin to bite. Dempsey says that sponsorship at local level could cover anywhere between 20-40 per cent of team costs. Without it, clubs like Trim are struggling to find alternative sources of revenue. "The way I look at it," says Dempsey, "in the current economic climate (multiple sponsors), it's a necessity."
But there has been little debate around the issue; even Dempsey admits that. The GAA's commercial director Dermot Power observes that Gaelic games, unlike other sports, have not been "over-commercialised" and current policy favours limited branding. Mindful of the GAA players' amateur status, he remarks: "Perhaps we can't be as crassly commercial as other sports."
Power believes that local businesses are still happy to support GAA clubs and he suggested that if clubs wanted multiple sponsors they might look at sharing them among different teams. He didn't sound convinced by having more than one sponsor displayed on playing gear. "We tend to be more conservative in our branding than other sports; I would be against overt branding. We have amateur players and we need to think of their considerations."
The Trim motion asks that county and clubs be permitted to display the brand name of more than one sponsor on jerseys, tracksuits and kitbags. Currently there are strict GAA guidelines on the dimensions of sponsors' logos and brands displayed on playing gear. The maximum upper limit is 350 square cm. All sponsorship agreements need sanction from the GAA and a sponsor's brand name, distinctive marks or logo cannot be displayed on shorts or the body of a player.
Brand names are not allowed on boots, gloves, hurleys, kicking tees, hand guards, sweatbands, undergarments, headbands, or helmets, or on any other item of playing equipment or accessories worn or displayed during official matches or in pre-match or post-match interviews on television or video. The penalty for breaching the rule is a minimum suspension for a player of 24 weeks, up to a maximum sentence of expulsion. For a team or club, the penalty is disqualification or a loss of expenses.
"If a club can get three sponsors at say, €2,000 each of them, rather than looking for €6,000 off one, it will make things a lot easier," states Dempsey. "We have done nothing since 1991 (when sponsorship on gear was first permitted). We are stuck in a time warp."
Well-known sponsor Martin Donnelly has sympathy with Dempsey's view. "About four years ago, Pat O'Donnell and I wanted to sponsor Clare with the two logos on the jersey and the GAA would not allow it," he says. "It nearly has to be allowed, as things get tighter and tighter, as they will get for another couple of years. There is no other way, although it probably will have to be done tastefully. They have always been particular about size of logos and kept a good tight rein on it up to now. In cycling, their jerseys are been nearly covered in sponsorships. If you look at most other sports now, they nearly all have it. I could not see them allow more than three sponsors. But necessity is the mother of invention and there probably is a need for this now."
Outside commercial forces have always had a prodding influence. Kerry's three stripes' controversy in 1981 when they wore Adidas gear for the All-Ireland football final led to motions to Congress seeking clearer regulations. In 1985, Kerry took out full-page newspaper ads on the morning of the All-Ireland final advertising a washing machine brand. The GAA responded with tighter controls and dire warnings but the winds were changing. The same year the current GAA director-general Páraic Duffy attended a GAC meeting to explain whey Monaghan's football team had worn Adidas gear in the All-Ireland semi-final draw and replay, although it did not feature the company's logo. Duffy was county chairman at the time and argued that no rule had been contravened.
In 2003, a bookmaking firm paid four county hurlers a relatively small amount of money to wear its logo on their sticks for a major championship game in Croke Park, claiming that there was nothing in the rule
book outlawing the practice. The GAA was enraged but it had to accept that its directives needed tightening and were open to exploitation and ambush marketing. Two years later, a drinks company tried a similar stunt and on players' boots and caused embarrassment to the GAA in light of its sponsorship arrangement with Guinness.
But the GAA has had to be flexible and two years ago announced a new multiple-sponsor deal to cover the All-Ireland hurling and football championships, six sponsors in all, each given equal prominence. What Trim are seeking next Saturday, it may be argued, is also a shift in the commercial mindset.
"Unless you have a product to sell to the masses, (sponsoring a team) does not make much economic sense," says Martin Donnelly. He estimates that some county football teams' sponsorship deals are as low as €20,000 and that all sponsorships have substantially dropped in value owing to the recession, some as much as 50 per cent.
In response to the GAA's decision to seek multiple sponsors for its primary competitions two years ago, Michael Whelan, head of sponsorship in Diageo Ireland, said: "Going forward, the cost for a single sponsor would probably have become prohibitive. None of the sponsors are competing brands and common sense will prevail."
Common sense is what Brendan Dempsey will be arguing for at Congress in Newcastle next Saturday as well. But common sense doesn't always prevail. Multiple branding on playing gear would, in Dermot Power's words, be a "huge" step. "Soccer, which would be pretty commercial, would have one sponsor on the shirt."