Much to ponder for the GAA

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

In the aftermath of this first condensed inter-county season, mutterings and murmurings abound. “The intercounty season is too short”, we hear. “We’re conceding ground to other sports”. “The GAA is losing money.” To date, few of these objections appear to be from inter-county players - who for the most part seem content to have a portion of their summer available to live their lives – but from those who stand to make less money during the shorter season (mostly pundits). Clothing giant O’Neills has claimed that the shortened season will see up to a 15 per cent drop-off in county shirt sales, due partly to the lack of build-up time before finals. Happily, according to the Irish News, the company reported an operating profit of £1.2 million in 2021, so should have some resources available to re-imagine its marketing strategy.   
These rumblings are reflective, though, of a wider sense that the GAA is at a bit of a crossroads. The association is unique, in that it is not a commercial operation in the traditional sense of the word; players are not paid, and most of the revenue generated goes back to clubs, but to achieve this, the organisation needs to operate on a commercial basis, which can lead to tension and conflicting behaviour and principles. This column has taken aim at the GAA more than once, but there can be no denying that it is becoming ever more challenging to tread the line between community and commercialism.
The GAA’s core values state that community and club is at the heart of the association, that everything it does helps to enrich the communities it serves. It fosters a clear sense of identity and place, and supports its members in contributing to the well-being of their respective communities. The GAA delivers exceptional value to communities. In 2019, Na Fianna GAA club quantified its social value at €50 million after the club’s grounds were threatened by plans for the city’s Metrolink construction. This was calculated by placing a value on volunteers’ time and measuring the return on that investment at a social level, looking at metrics like health, culture, and community engagement. This demonstrates that clubs are the heart of the GAA, and initiatives like the split season must work for them.
Sometimes, given the value placed upon community and wellbeing, it can be hard to reconcile the GAA’s values with some of its commercial arrangements and sponsorships, especially those with companies that clearly do not hold similar values or operate in ways detrimental to communities. The recent AIB controversy highlighted this, but a spotlight will also surely appear over hurling championship sponsors Bord Gáis Energy, who despite inflicting multiple price hikes on consumers have just announced a 74 percent increase in operating profits. The GAA holds a certain responsibility here, but given that the grassroots depend on the profits for support, it is also obliged to get the best possible value for its commercial arrangements. It’s a fine line.

Values challenged
Issues such as player transfers, payments to managers, inequality of funding across counties, senior executive salaries, integration, and player welfare and expenses continue to rear their heads, all with their own arguments to challenge the GAA’s values. Online ticketing, implemented with little warning or contingency continue to cause issues for a certain cohort of attendees. The association’s poor communication with supporters, and its continued insistence on unnecessarily fixing games in Croke Park instead of smaller grounds also continue to jar.  
Access to games is another issue. The association’s latest strategic plan, ‘Aontas 2026: Towards One GAA For All’ was launched in April 2022 and focuses heavily on participation and inclusion, but does not allude to broadcasting, which surely underpins these. Criticisms of the current arrangement remain including the exclusionary Sky deal and the level and standard of RTÉ’s coverage. New media rights arrangements are due for 2023, and there is a high level of expectation, among the public that as well as additional TV coverage, the streaming of inter-county games will become standard, thus creating equality of access.
So, a lot for the GAA to navigate in the coming years. While it gets a lot right, there is room for improvement, and for senior decision-makers in particular to really deliver on the values the association so proudly claims to uphold.