Gaelic, hurling, camogie – these are the terms that a typical Russian language speaker would associate purely with swear words. However, if you pronounce them in front of an Irishman than you would surely be greeted with the widest smile in the world accompanied by some sort of friendly compliment that you would never fully understand regardless of your linguistic proficiency. No, this is not a story about the codewords of a super secret society. This is a text about gaelic sports, how they’re developed within and beyond Ireland and how a Russian sports analyst/geek got goosebumps from learning about the magnitude and devotion of the GAA and its sports development policy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and devour this one steadily!
Gaelic football and hurling, undoubtedly the most popular of all gaelic sports, are directly governed and developed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which is also the largest sports organization in Ireland. Gaelic sports are so huge in the country that roughly every fourth Irishman is a GAA member. Women’s gaelic football is developed by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA), while camogie development is overseen by the Camogie Association (CA). All of these organizations work closely together and event share the same roof at Croke Park in Dublin. Croke Park is most definitely the heart and soul of gaelic sports, which is exactly why non-gaelic sports are not played at the stadium. Even though it is the 4th largest stadium in Europe in terms of capacity with 82 300 seats, football and rugby games are prohibited irrespective of their potential commercial benfits. This article will solely focus on the activities of the GAA, since it is the main locomotive of gaelic sports development.
Truly, a NATIONAL Sports Organization
The GAA includes about 3 thousand sports clubs and more than 400 of those are located outside of the Irish island. Among those overseas clubs you may even find a Russian representative - the flamboyant Moscow Shamrocks! The GAA has regional representatives, which are called county boards. It is also interesting to note that the counties do not necessarily fit the current federative structure of Ireland. The GAA recognizes its provinces and counties as they were back in 1884, when the organization was founded. Therefore, the GAA doesn’t actually differentiate between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, in case you were snoozing through 8th grade geography. This sort fact gives the GAA the chance to savor the traditional feeling that the people get from watching their home county play as well as give the gaelic sports a nostalgic charm.
How are the competitions organized?
The main competitions organized under the banner of the GAA include club and county team tournaments. Each county has several GAA clubs within its structure. Club tournaments start out at the county level and go all the way to the All-Ireland Championships, where the winners of county and provincial tournaments seek out the inaugural champion. The age groups of GAA competitions vary from as low as under-11 to seniors.
Inter-county competitions are known to be much more popular than inter-club tournaments. The county squads are formed based on the best players at club level within each county. Inter-county competitions draw much larger crowds and are even broadcast on the tele. Spring is the time when you would expect the National Leagues of gaelic football and hurling to begin. The competition format is pretty much similar to any other European sports league (all teams play against each other during the course of a season, several divisions linked with a promotion-relegation system). But these tournaments are mostly a warm-up for the behemoth of gaelic sports – the All-Ireland Senior Championship.
The All-Ireland Championship is a cup tournament with a knock-out format from the get-go with the matches beginning at the provincial level. The champions of each of the 4 provinces then face-off against 4 other county teams that qualified for the top-8 via repechage.
Part of the club – part of the gaelic movement
GAA Clubs pay an annual fee to their corresponding county boards and those find themselves making the same annual fees to the GAA itself. The clubs function as any other European non-profit sports club with most of hheir activities being covered by membership fees and voluntary work by club members. The fees are kept very affordable for the average Irish resident. Club membership is broken down to 4 categories:
Full member. For adults above the age of 18.
Youth member. For kids under 18.
Honorary member. Awarded to club members that have immensely contributed to club development and the gaelic sports movement.
Social member. For adults of 18 years and older, which do not wish participate in organizing events and revoke their club voting rights.
All clubs must strictly follow GAA standards of quality. In terms of pricing the membership fees clubs are given decision-making freedom, which includes granting discounts to certain categories of citizen like students or family packages. Here’s a typical club hurling game photo. Gives you a good idea why people gladly enroll in GAA clubs – just look at those Lord of the Rings-like hurling bats!
GAA clubs are well integrated into the Irish schooling system with almost every primary and secondary schools having their gaelic sports teams. Most commonly a local PE teacher would be a GAA-accredited coach. But if a school doesn’t have this kind of specialist the GAA club will easily provide a coach. No additional costs will be incurred by the kids or their parents except for the membership fees with the club.
A non-profit organization creating a commercial product
The problem of realizing commercial potential, which is so relevant in the Russian context, is apparently not even a problem with respect to gaelic sports. Despite the fact that the GAA is a non-profit organization, the level of management and marketing work is surely of professional standards. One of the highlights of any All-Ireland Championship is the trademark marching band walk along with the players across the perimeter of Croke Park. This gives an additional boost for the fans so that they can really feel their involvement in the spectacle. Here’s a video from the All-Ireland Senior Championship final of 2016 between Dublin and Mayo.
Most importantly, all GAA competitions are strictly amateur. So outside of the stadium all the players have full-time jobs, which is their main source of income. Every year at the All-Ireland Senior Championship final the 82,300-seat Croke Park is absolutely packed and millions of people tune in to watch the game worldwide. Bear in mind that this is a national sport played by amateurs…
Inter-county GAA tournaments have international broadcasting deals with BBC, SKY Sports and Premium Sports. Gaelic football and hurling competitions are also well received by commercial sponsors with all GAA events having naming sponsorship deals with big companies. The national leagues have a long-lasting contract with the famous insurance company Allianz. Their partnership will celebrate its 15-year anniversary in 2018. Even youth and U-21 competitions can boast about having sponsorship details. Our common companion at breakfast meals, Kellogg’s, sponsors the GAA summer youth camps, which attract more the 120,000 kids annually. This means that every 10-th kid in Ireland goes to a Kellogg’s GAA summer camp. Here’s a breakdown of the main naming sponsorship deals of GAA events:
Financial transparency and self-sufficiency
The GAA annually publishes a yearly report, which highlights the organization’s main milestones and gives a complete record of financial accounts. Here’s a link to the 200-page report from 2016. GAA revenue in 2016 equaled 60.5 mil Euros, which is a 7% increase from 2015’s 56.6 mil Euros. About half of that income is generated by gate receipts, followed by commercial rights (this is where you would see the revenue from those sponsorship deals). About 3 mil. Euros annually is given to the GAA by the state body for sports development, which is Sport Ireland. This accounts to only 5% of GAA total revenue.
2016 saw the GAA spend on organizing events and tournaments about 12 mil. Euros, which 40% of its gate receipts revenue and 17% of total revenue. GAA development and gaelic sports promotion activities were allocated 11,4 mil. Euros, which is more the a million more than the sum from 2015. These funds are spent on GAA’s coaching programs, raising awareness and popularity of gaelic sports across the globe. The coaching education programs are also partially financed by the Sport Ireland grants. The only condition is that state funds account for no more than a third of the costs. At the moment GAA easily covers 80% of the cost for promoting its coaching education programs.
The last 50 saw the GAA invest more the 2.6 billion Euros into infrastructure development. Thanks to a special grant fund the GAA helps out counties and clubs with modernizing training facilities. However, there are strict guidelines that need to be followed:
A foundation for sporting success
As the local Irishmen here in Moscow told me, people like to joke around that blokes who aren’t able to prove themselves as half-descent gaelic sports players usually go on to do other less physically demanding sports like football or rugby. It might be funny, but as we Russians say – every joke has it fair amount of humour, but the rest is pure truth. The Irish national football team has a whole plethora of players with GAA past: Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, John O’Shea, Mark Wilson and others. Even Martin O’Neil, the national team coach, comes from a serious gaelic sports background with his father being a founding member at a GAA club.
The intriguing part about gaelic sports is that you don’t have to come from a long line of hardcore Irishmen to play. It’s all about inclusion. At the age of 15 being on a school exchange program the Irish island was visited by a Spanish boy that would later go to conquer the footballing world – Xabi Alonso. Although Alonso did not play official GAA matches at Meath, where he lived for half a year, he regularly enjoyed a game of gaelic football with the local kids. He even went to support Meath at Croke Park. “The game was not what I was used to. Much more physical. Oh, and I still don’t understand how the players don’t wear crash helmets.”
A great deal of appreciation for helping bring this article to life must be awarded to Alan Moore, Bainisteoir/Coach of Moscow Shamrocks GAA club… who keeps on the GAA spirit alive even when he is so far away from Croke Park.
This article was prepared by Nikita Osokin, Head Analyst of the Center of Strategic Sport Research at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.