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GAA'S communication revolution on a roll

WHEN the GAA announced recently that they were going to issue guidelines to members on using social media the Twitterati were all over it within minutes.

With their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks jokes flooded cyberspace; like how all tweets would have to be made as gaeilge; would have to be vetted by the CCCC and could not be made from GAA property if they referred to 'foreign' games.

Yet Croke Park and many county boards are already operating Twitter and Facebook accounts and the growing technology that allows people instantaneous access to information has become a fantastic tool and publicity vehicle for the sport at club, county and national level.

Long gone are the days of sitting around 'watching the radio' while listening to Michael O'Hehir.

While the older GAA fans tune in to RTE radio's late Sunday night club round-up by Sean Og O Ceallachain, the Celtic Tiger generation and younger get their information a lot more quickly.

Croke Park primarily uses Twitter to alert fans to news stories and features on their website.

That website even includes their own in-house tv programme, a preview show called 'Around the Square,' which often has exclusive player interviews and will have 10 episodes this summer.

Munster Council PRO Ed Donnelly is hopeful their provincial website will even have live video screening of matches before this year is out.

"We will be able to stream matches that aren't being covered live by TV," he explained.

"We had hoped to have it up and running in time for the U-21 hurling championships which may come a little too soon for us, but I would be confident it will be in place for the club championships this year."

Donnelly proved to be something of a techno-visionary in his previous role as Tipperary PRO and was really chuffed to be approached by a supporter the night Tipp won the hurling final last September.

"He was a Tipperary man who hadn't been home from Canada for 15 years, but he heard I was the guy who'd been updating our pages and came over to thank me," Donnelly revealed. "Technology had helped keep him right up to date.

"Twitter's 140-character format is absolutely ideal for live match updates, it's completely instantaneous.

"We use Facebook differently, it is about building interest and a community for specific events and competitions."

Munster GAA currently has 5,000 Facebook friends and Donnelly says that number will accelerate dramatically once their senior hurling championship comes around.

Many county boards are also already using social networking sites to collect and inform supporters.

And according to two Wicklow fans, it is the so-called weaker counties who have the most to gain from this new technology.

It is fair to say that Wicklow hurling -- who've just won Division 3A to gain historic promotion to Division 2 next year -- rarely get much of a look-in from the national media or broadcasters.


That frustration was the initial motivation for supporters Alan O'Brien (27) and Shane Ferguson (31) to set up their own Wicklow GAA website.

Originally from Wicklow town (Ferguson now lives in Meath), they both work in banking, but their website hobby increasingly occupies their spare time.

O'Brien admits that both legs of his daily 45-minute train trip to work are usually spent updating the county's GAA website, plus another hour or two when he gets home.

Their four year-old site wicklowgaaonline.com so eclipsed the county's official website that the county board eventually asked them to replace and run it.

Wicklow are one of many counties already using the information management system (run by Servasport) that the GAA uses to register players and collate results and update tables.

"Referees text in the results of their games and all club results are up on our website within an hour," O'Brien explains. "The refs even get a text message beforehand to remind them to do it."

But their website also provides live updates from all county games -- they believe they were the first in the GAA to do it.

Wicklow fans who can't make it to a county game can find out what is happening by logging into the 'live match & news' section on their website and pressing the F5 key.

"It's the same thing that the BBC and now RTE are doing for major events ," O'Brien said.

"They've got bigger resources, obviously, so you don't need to press F5 (the refresh button) on their sites to keep updating, but otherwise we do exactly the same thing."

Using their mobile phones to tweet the updates has even eradicated the need to carry laptops to games, and they also use Twitter and Facebook as a tool to direct supporters to more detailed info on their site.

Sometimes even O'Brien himself has been surprised by the reach of this new technology.

"I provided live updates from an O'Byrne Cup match against Louth last year and, at our first League game, I met a guy who told me he had been following the match live from an oil-rig in Nigeria where he was working!" he revealed.

"Brian Brennan, who sponsors the county, was in Melbourne for the same game and also followed it online."

Their site extensively covers all aspects of Wicklow GAA: football, hurling, camogie, women's football and even primary school games. Local photographer Michael Kelly provides the up-to-date pictures, and thanks to the county board's match videos they post up edited highlights of all inter-county games and do the same for top club games.

As a 'citizen journalist' O'Brien concedes they will never have the same objectivity as professional media, but feels they are still filling a big information deficit for fans.

"While we've branded the website for the county board, we do retain control over it," he explained. "I wouldn't always be in agreement with the board and wouldn't be afraid to say so, but generally if there is something controversial locally, we would leave it to the media to cover it.

"The initial idea of our website -- 'by the fans, for the fans' -- still stands. We wanted to promote the games in Wicklow and would always take a positive line."

None of them are paid, so it is a labour of love -- O'Brien reckons he's only missed four inter-county matches in the last four years.

The Garden County may not often make the national headlines, but their website is accepted to be one of the best in the GAA.

It generates 28,000 to 30,000 hits a month, with up to 2,500 on a Monday morning alone, when O'Brien reckons many people use their work computers to get their first GAA fix of the week.

"It has grown from nothing," he said. "The first time we broke 1,000 hits in one day we felt like going out and celebrating!"