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Would Professionalism Destroy the GAA?

Posted on September 27th, 2015 by Admin

Colm McCarthy writes an interesting piece of speculation in the Irish Examiner about what a professional GAA would look like.  One of many good points he makes is the example of how Kerry Packer, an Australian billionaire, created a World Series of Cricket in 1977, and there was nothing the sport’s governing bodies could do to stop him.

It is a known fact throughout the history of sport that as soon as professionalism becomes economically viable, it also becomes inevitable.

Payments start out as expenses which gradually grow more and more generous, then they become broken-time payments to compensate for players’ losing time at work, and all the while the flow of cash under the table continues unabated until the authorities have to bow to the inevitable and legalize that which they cannot stop. The only alternative is to lose control of the game as professionally-minded people break away and form their own organization with its own playing rules, as happened with the rupture of Rugby into rival Union and League codes.

The fact that the GAA remains amateur is not due to it having a rule banning pay-for-play, but because the economics are just not there.  Rugby and soccer can just about sustain a professional and semi-professional setup in Ireland, but this is because there is a larger international market that these sports can plug into. Soccer has the Champions League, Rugby has the European Rugby Champions Cup, formerly the Heineken Cup. In addition to these international competitions that allow local clubs to compete against continental clubs, there is also the international setting of the World Cups in each code that helps to propel the sport to dizzy heights of popularity by plugging into peoples’ patriotism to get behind a national team.

None of this exists in the GAA.  High profile Gaelic games, in the form of the inter-county championships, are large crowd-pullers and attract big TV audiences by Irish standards, but it is essentially a domestic game that is confined to a relatively small market.  Viewership of GAA matches is measured in the thousands, viewership of other sports is measured in the millions and hence broadcasting rights and sponsorship packages can be sold for much larger sums which bring enough money into the game to sustain player wages. We cannot say the same for the GAA which pays its overheads and wages of a small paid staff, reinvests the rest back into games development which spreads quite thin across thirty-two Irish counties plus the international units, and the association breaks even.

It’s clear that professionalism in Gaelic games depends on the sports making an international breakthrough. The GPA’s initiatives with its invention of Hurling Super Elevens, carried out without any consultation with the GAA authorities in America, could be seen as a push in that direction, and is ominously reminiscent of Rugby League’s departure from the Rugby Union rules.

McCarthy also rightly notes that this discussion is so taboo in the GAA that on the rare occasion that it does come up it is sometimes called “the P word.”  When Nicky Brennan took over as GAA President he remarked that pay-for-play would not be considered or even discussed as long has he was President, a comment that received rapturous applause when it was made at Congress. But we should not be afraid to discuss it; the worst thing we can do is ignore it and hope it goes away. It is okay to conduct thought experiments and speculate about what might happen.

What is important is not whether or not the games stay amateur, what is important is that we do what is in the games’ best interests. If they are better off professional, they should go professional; if they are better off amateur, they should stay amateur.

One argument against professional Gaelic games is that such a development would “destroy the association.”  Would it? It depends on how a professional setup were structured.

Many assume that professionalism would mean each county board becoming an employer. In that scenario, players cease to be amateur volunteers and become employees, with all the rights that are due to them under employment laws, many of which are written in Brussels.  Free movement of labor and freedom from discrimination based on place of origin would mean that the GAA could lose control over who plays for which county. This would most certainly destroy one of the defining characteristics of the GAA. When Kilkenny wins an All-Ireland hurling championship, we can honestly say that it means that people in Kilkenny play hurling better than anywhere else. Ditto for Football in Dublin when they win.  Contrast this with Manchester United winning the English Premier League; does this mean that people in the city of Manchester play soccer better than elsewhere? Or is it because Man U has more revenue thanks to its international fan base, and hence can afford to buy in more talent from outside, both on the field and in management?

As things currently stand, GAA county managers do not have the option of importing talent, they have to make use of the material they’ve got. Improving the quality of said material depends on the county board ensuring that there is a good youth system, coaching and development structures are in place, there is healthy competition between clubs, and an environment is maintained in which the best talent can rise to the top and make county. All of this requires a herculean effort by volunteers at grass roots level, which is why the GAA is the biggest generator of social capital and volunteerism in the country.

In addition, fans feel a deep sense of connection to a county team since it is truly representative of local communities.  This is perhaps unique in the world of high profile sports.  All of this would be undermined if players were suddenly free to defect to whatever county were able to write the biggest paycheque.

So is there a way to structure a professional GAA without undermining this community ethos?

In the United States, where sports have always been shaped mainly by commercial considerations, there are two ways in which professional leagues are structured. One is the way in which the NFL is set up.  Each team, or “franchise,” is an independently owned legal entity. Transfers between franchises are regulated by the governing league, but franchises are essentially individual employers.  However other sports such as the Arena Football League (an indoor gridiron football league) and Major League Soccer are structured on a Single Entity League basis. This means that rather than individual teams existing as distinct legal entities and employers, the league itself is the employer and has considerably more control over player movements. Each team is analogous to the department within a company, as opposed to being individual companies in their own right.

To put this in a professional GAA context, instead of each county board being an employer, the GAA itself would be the employer and hence would have the right to restrict players to playing for specific county teams based on where they are from, in the same way that a bank can insist that an employer go to work in a branch in a specific town according to the organization’s needs.  This would mean that county managers would still not be able to import talent from outside, and the incentives to develop the game at grass-roots level from a young age would still be in place. Fans would be able to maintain that sense of connectedness to a county team since it remains truly representative of the sport in that county, and the territorial allegiance that drives GAA fandom would remain. 

It is impressive that today’s inter-county players do not get paid and they have day jobs to go back to on a Monday morning. But this is not what adds value to the sports. What adds value is the sense of place and the territorial allegiance that county teams inspire, and the fact that county teams can only build success on a foundation of grass-roots work that takes years to produce results. All of this is made possible not by the amateur status per se, but by the rules that only allow players to genuinely represent their communities. Professionalism does not necessarily have to take this away if it is structured correctly.

The Single Entity Structure could well be the model that a future professional GAA would need to adopt if it were to maintain the close ties between players and their fans and that all-important sense of place that makes the GAA such a uniquely Irish institution.  Professionalism, if it were ever made economically viable thanks to international growth, does not have to be feared. A bigger danger would be that our fear causes us to resist it so hard that a breakaway professional league were to come into being, causing a repeat of Rugby’s great schism that undermined that sport’s growth by splitting it into two rival games under two rival organizations. If the GAA were to split into professional and amateur factions and the sports to diverge in independent directions with different rules, that would be a much bigger tragedy. Promoters of Hurling Super Elevens should take note.

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