Monday 23 October 2017

Support for GAA must have its price

John Greene

John Greene

There was a suggestion last week that the GAA may need to set up its own version of NAMA. It came from former Cork hurler Tomás Mulcahy, who said a lot of clubs are facing into debt problems which they won't be able to sort out on their own.

He proposed that Croke Park should separate the debt held by clubs into day-to-day bills and repayments on loans taken out to pay for developments and that, where appropriate, the GAA should look to write down the latter in cases where it is simply too large to be paid back. "People have enough going on in their own lives without having to worry about taking calls from banks about club finances," he said.

Two days before Mulcahy's comments, a man pulled into a GAA ground for an underage final. His daughter and her friend were both in the car and both were due to play.

A decision had been taken beforehand that each car would be charged €5 on entering to pay for the referee, to make a small donation in the region of €30 to the club which had made its pitch available and any money left over would go towards the cost of the medals for the final. This man, however, refused point-blank to pay. Why won't you? he was asked.

"I thought the GAA was supposed to be free," he replied.

Two days before that, on Newstalk, the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy said that a third of county boards are experiencing financial difficulty. "They're no different to the rest of society," he commented. Which is true, of course, but then you have to ask, who will pick up the tab? And where will the money come from?

It's a bit like the caller to Radio 1 some time back who complained that it wasn't fair that the Irish people should have to pay back all this money to Europe, that the government should have to pay it because ultimately this mess is their fault. The trouble with this is that she failed to join the dots on where exactly the government gets its money from -- the people.

This idea that the GAA is 'free' has taken root over many generations. Anyone involved in a club will tell you one of the biggest hassles they face every year is collecting the annual membership fee, especially from players. Often those people will play other sports too, like golf, soccer or rugby, where taking part in a game without having first joined the club and paid the membership fee would be unthinkable.

There is a perception that the GAA is a wealthy organisation -- which in many respects it is -- but it has always struggled to properly communicate how its money is spent, and to what uses it has been put. This applies at local level as much as, if not more than, national level.

For a lot of people, however, there is no distinction between national and local level. Putting sponsorship of the leagues and championships, and gate revenues, to one side, county boards and clubs ultimately rely on the communities in which they are based. In that sense they are no different from any other organisation.

So the man who is asked for a fiver at the gate, or a tenner for a club fundraiser, might not distinguish between the two. To him, it's all one giant pot.

GAA clubs are no different from any other in having to scrape around for every cent. These are difficult times for any sporting organisation in terms of fundraising, even if by and large the goodwill remains at a time when unemployment and emigration have hit communities hard.

People are not as quick to come forward with money for clubs now, although the results of a recent survey conducted by -- an Irish company which helps clubs to get their fundraising efforts to online platforms -- show that the GAA's failure to communicate properly with its members and supporters is a major problem.

In all, 1,000 GAA club members were asked for reasons they had not supported a fundraiser, and the answers were revealing. Inability to pay in the current economic climate was only fourth on the list, lagging well behind: we don't know what's going on in the club; we don't know what the money is being spent on; and we only ever hear from the club when they are looking for money.

So, there is a clear message here that the failure of clubs and counties to properly communicate their work to supporters is hitting their ability to raise money. One club I know of in Louth has taken to putting up posters in the locality listing where the money it raises is spent, down to spelling out its loan repayments.

The explosion in the inter-county game in the last 20 years saw the cost of preparing county teams rise to ridiculously high levels that could be neither sustained nor justified.

When Kildare recently went on a training holiday at a time when the county board was being bailed out by the GAA to the tune of €300,000, the point was made that the players had fundraised to help towards the cost of the trip.

Assuming they fundraised in their locality, there will be a knock-on effect on clubs when they next look to raise money in their area.

And the same goes for other counties where players have had to organise fundraisers to help pay for their preparation costs. Some county boards and a number of clubs -- including some high-profile ones -- which engaged in free spending are feeling the pain now, and other boards and the majority of clubs are a little tarnished by association.

All this has combined to muddy the image of the GAA and its money.

The GAA might argue that it is sometimes judged to different standards than some of its main sporting rivals, but this is still largely a problem of its own making, and one which is easily fixed.

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