The people's game Why nobody can match the GAA
John Meagher on a summer of sunshine matches and bumper gates that saw the association defy the odds and put their rivals in the shade
It has, by any stretch of the imagination, been an extraordinary summer for the GAA. Not only has 2013 witnessed the most absorbing hurling championship in years, but attendances are up across the board and there's real expectation that tomorrow's decider between Dublin and Mayo could be one of the all-time great Gaelic football matches.
And next week, the hurlers of Cork and Clare will be back at Croke Park for a much-anticipated replay – the second in as many years.
Despite this month marking the fifth year of the recession – and despite the continued lure of cross-channel football, top-level rugby and a myriad other glamorous sporting attractions – the GAA is not just surviving, but thriving. Its brand is arguably stronger than ever.
"The GAA has ingrained itself into the national consciousness," says sports economist Robbie Butler. "It remains more intrinsically linked to community, especially to rural Ireland, than any other sport. It celebrates its amateur status, but there's nothing amateur about the way it's run. It is a highly professional organisation that has moved with the times but stayed true to its community ethos."
Butler, who lectures in University College Cork and blogs on sportseconomics.org, says much of its appeal is down to the quality of the games – especially hurling – but believes its engagement is built upon a deep-rooted sense of Irishness.
"It's more than just sport – and always has been," he says. "You look at the people emigrating – one of the first things they do when they go to a new place is seek out the GAA club if there's one there. It brings people together.
"Gaelic games help to reinforce a sense of self-identity – and supporters can identify so much more with the players than they could in other sports, because they might be lads you grew up with or know through work or whatever. When it comes to my county, Waterford, 25,000 might go to Thurles to see the hurlers play in the Championship, but only 500 might turn up to see Waterford United's soccer players in the League of Ireland – there just isn't the same connection with them."
Paul Dermody, the GAA's commercial manager, says the organisation's community ethos is as essential today as it was when it was founded by Michael Cusack and others in 1884. "Eighty-six per cent of all revenue into Croke Park is fed back into the grassroots across the 32 counties," he says. "The 2,500 clubs in the country and the 300 abroad are the lifeblood of the association and always will be.
"But it was also essential that we nurture the GAA brand as best we can and that's something that we have put special emphasis on since 2007, when we introduced the new GAA logo, and the following year when we embraced a multi-sponsor model for hurling and football and dispensed with the title sponsorship arrangement that we had put in place in the years before."
GAA chiefs looked closely at the money-making model of the UEFA Champions League when establishing the current structure, which sees six different brands sponsoring the hurling and football championships, three per code. "You can't be blinkered," Dermody says. "You can learn from other sports about how best to run and monetise your own." A member of the GAA's marketing team, Rebecca Hocking, has a background in promoting the Australian Football League.
Dermody points out that thanks to one of the current sponsors, the Musgrave Group, tickets – which can be purchased in Centra and SuperValu stores throughout the country – are more readily available than before. It's a factor, he believes, that helps account for the "10 to 15pc rise in attendances across the board".
And with GAA county boards embracing the power of social media in recent years, there is "a greater level of engagement with the supporter. It's their association, after all".
Tom Byrne is well placed to describe the magnetic appeal of the GAA. His two late goals helped Mayo win an All-Ireland minor title in 1978 and his senior career included lining out against Dublin in the 1985 semi-final. Football is his lifeblood and when he lived in Chicago for 20 years after hanging up his boots, he made sure to return home each time Mayo contested an All-Ireland final. "It wouldn't have been right not to be home for those matches," he says.
"For a huge number of people in Ireland, the GAA is at the centre of their lives," Big Tom, as he is affectionately known in Mayo, says. "It's not just the county that's important, but the club too. Everything starts at the grassroots and you have people throughout the country who do tireless voluntary work for their club. It is what has kept the GAA so strong after all the years and it's still the case today."
Mayo, as their long-suffering supporters are only too aware, have failed to win any of the six finals they have contested since last lifting the Sam Maguire Cup in 1951, but Big Tom Byrne is confident that tomorrow will be different. "I think we'll do it this time. There's real belief in the county and it's great to look around Kiltimagh and see everyone – young and old – behind the lads."
Meanwhile, GAA historian Paul Rouse believes that while blue-riband events like All-Ireland finals will always pull in capacity crowds, the organisation should do more for rank-and-file members and the ordinary supporter who frequents the local game.
"Ticket prices for club matches are too expensive," he says. "In a time of recession, charging people €12 in is wrong. It should be a fiver. And while there is a lot of emphasis on the 2pc who play at inter-county level, the 98pc who play week in, week out should not be forgotten. It's thanks to the dedication of these people that the GAA continues to play such a significant part in Irish life."
While Rouse questions some of the commercial deals the GAA have struck in recent years, he rejects the view – occasionally espoused by those with little enthusiasm for "the gah" – that the organisation is old-fashioned or conservative. "Not only is such a view nonsense," he says, "but it always has been nonsense. It was a radical organisation from the start – and still is".
Ultimately, it is the games themselves that remain the GAA's unique selling points. "At its core, the attraction of the GAA is the sheer brilliance of the games. That has long been the case and it will certainly be the case come throw-in on Sunday."