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MacKenna On Monday: GAA Should Always Be About People, Not Profit

For so many in Irish society, the go-to word that’s clutched as if fluffy and safe is “disgrace”. Almost exclusively it’s as embarrassing as it is hyperbolic in its usage.

Everything from the renaming of a hospital in Louth to a refereeing decision in a football match gets attached to a term so severe it should be held back for the most grim realities. Thus, before we go on, the new price hike on GAA tickets is not a disgrace.

Instead, for the most part and for most people, it lies somewhere between a minor inconvenience and mild annoyance. A majority will still go, and if crowds are to fluctuate it’ll likely be for some other reason.

Granted, there might be a handful that the cost of a pint may stop them going to see their team, and if that is the case feel free to use the above word, but it’s best directed beyond GAA to wider Irish political and economic direction.

Many over the weekend will have gotten their first taste of the new price structures and they will get their fill of it across the remainder of the season. There’s €5 onto the cost of Divisions One and Division Two games, or a €3 increase if bought before match-day. The same has been added to the qualifiers. The same again attached to an All Ireland semi-final ticket. Meanwhile, it’s a tenner more to get into the year’s biggest game. If your side has a miraculous run that’ll be €75 more, although if such a meander through the season were to take place it would be easily worth that and a whole lot more.

However, forget the numbers for a moment as they are a distraction. Instead, focus on the insight those numbers give as yet again they force the looking glass to be dragged across those running the association. Once more we get to see the make-up of the minds and the brains of those controlling and deciding on the direction this is headed.

So let’s start at the very top, at least in a ceremonial sense. For a remarkable thing happened around all of this that got overlooked. It quickly became clear that John Horan, the president, achieved an incredible feat in getting that position considering he doesn’t know a huge amount about what he rules over. We are only going by his own words.

In defending this move he noted that “anyone running a business and having a product when you go for a price increase, you’ll always have to take it on board that there’s the law of diminishing returns, that if you up the price, you may diminish your sales”. In a sports governance sense, that’s an astonishing utterance to make as proudly as publicly.

For the very first line of the mission statement of the association he leads reads: “The GAA is a volunteer organisation.” In other words, it’s about people, never profits.

A nice marketing ideal but hardly a particularly accurate representation of the new truth.

Sadly this is a slogan that we are being shunted further and further away from, inch by inch, season after season in the hope we do not notice. Let the tide carry the boat and while you don’t feel the movement, it won’t be long before you squint to see the shore.

That’s why year after year the same warnings are made about what is happening in the hope someone will get wise to it. In this case, there was an array of other statements made that give a real insight into the process. For instance he noted that the increase had to be a full five euros as anything else would be chaotic, in the process sounding like Tony McGregor bemoaning coinage when wearing a Hugo Boss fitted suit.

On one hand, it reeked of arrogance as if inconvenience over profits should be used to suckle at the teat still harder. On the other hand, if Horan does wrongly believe that this is a business, then it might be in his better interest to not treat customers poorly.

This was a throwback to the smugness exuded by a long line of officials just last summer as they suggested one of the reasons Kildare-Mayo couldn’t and wouldn’t be in Newbridge was due to an inability of patrons to control themselves and possible violence erupting over a jealousy around who did and did not have the limited tickets. That episode should have humiliated many. But once bitten, twice bitten, three times bitten… If they cannot see it, then it doesn’t and never did exist.

It didn’t even stop there as how deep a hole can you dig with just a handful of thrusts into the turf. He went on, with another telling line being that “the economy is strong at the moment”. For a sporting organisation that used to reflect the heartbeat of an island so well, this was proof of the shift in thinking and the loss of understanding.

Next Croke Park will be telling us we all partied.

It’s not surprising though, for this is the Dublin-centric ruling of the organisation. Out of their office windows, they’ll see the cranes playing with the skyline across the capital, and see that as the reality for eveyone.

Besides, what has taken place in their county across recent years has been gentrification of the sport as, barring very rare examples, it became about the middle class, moving from their working class routes of old. The rest are being forced to follow.

It may not be out of badness, but it feels out of touch and there’s and a lack of understanding of life beyond the Red Cow. In the last collapse – and we say that as it won’t be long before there’s another one – rural areas were hit harder and have been slower to recover. We are still 189,000 jobs or 55 per cent short of the employment level reached in 2007. Since 2012 Dublin’s growth rate has been around 16 per cent while out west it’s been a mere six per cent. Between the Celtic Tiger cull and 2014, Dublin had grown by 10 per cent while the economy of border areas fell by 32 per cent.

At the last measure, household income per person in 2014 had improved most in Dublin, increasing by five per cent relative to 2011, however in both the west and in border regions, the average disposable income was lower than in 2011. These are the cold, hard facts.

Even if this weren’t true, in an amateur effort so heavily stacked on volunteerism and so many people’s time and financial generosity already, an upturn isn’t a chance to gouge those they already rely on. Players don’t get paid, the majority of match-day staff don’t get paid, so there is simply not the need for ticket increases as in other sports. Anyway, if this is linked to some upturn the haves feel in the economy, inflation is not 33 per cent.

However we shouldn’t be surprised for when there was deflation and hardship, they probed and poked to see what might drop from pockets. As Paul Rouse in his Examiner column noted last week, when GAA tickets increased in 2011, unemployment was 15.9 per cent, meaning that more than 300,000 had no jobs. Meanwhile, it was still at a massive 12.4 per cent when games and a large semblance of soul was sold to Sky.

Rouse also spoke of the “spoof and spin” around the claim this was the first hike since 2011 when clearly it wasn’t. This is, in fact, an out-and-out lie, tarp thrown over what they know is wrong.

When John Horan ran for election, it now seems that it was a brilliant stroke of politics. With grassroots’ anger in abundance, he tapped into that, saying that if he was allowed a stint in charge that money would make its way back to clubs. But while he followed through in principle, the methodology has emerged as more deceptive than disappointing.

Those clubs will get more money but only because people will pay more.

On top of that, with talk of this bringing in an extra €1.2m a year, only €500,000 is earmarked for those clubs. So where is the rest going that is being handed over?

Ultimately those who already fund clubs and who give their disposable income locally are being asked for it to be pooled. And we already know how that pot is distributed, as for 15 years now registered players in Dublin have been getting up to 20 times as much as registered players elsewhere. So roll up, roll up. So pay up, pay up. And then shut up.

Of course, if the GAA was so wise to finance and in need of such an influx of income, they’d have been more concerned with events down south. We’ve still not a single answer, or even the suggestion they might be forthcoming around the €40m overspend on Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Instead, they put those that allowed what was either cluelessness or something more sinister onto the committee to try and get things back on track.

Looking inwards rather than outwards is more of an inconvenience. Besides, the mirror is a harder choice than going back to those treated over and over like an ATM machine.

Little by little it has been wrestled from the members and tugged away from what it was supposed to gloriously be. So forget €5, this is an awful lot more.

Where is this headed?

Where will it end up?

What is it they want?

Bit by bit we are getting the answers to those musings, but when this association finishes this journey there’s one more crucial question.

Will you want to still be a part of what it has become?

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.