With a draft system being implemented across the majority of America’s major sports, Brian Barry discusses whether or not such a system would work in the GAA.
Carlow for Sam 2022? Read this and it might not seem so far-fetched!
First things first. This is a hypothetical analysis, not necessarily advocating for such a system, rather merely pondering its plausibility.
Now that the Gaelic Games traditionalists/extremists/traditional extremists have lowered their guns, let’s consider it.
The draft, or the player selection meeting, occurs in American sports on an annual basis. Essentially, all college players who wish to make the step up to professional level put their names forward, and are subsequently selected by the franchises.
First preference is given to the team who performed the poorest the previous season, while the reigning champions are last in the pecking order.
This requires the ultimate power resting with the governing body, to whom all sides contract. This is in place in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. In a world where sports are entirely independent of politics, the irony of America having the most socialist sporting structures is blatant.
So how would this work in the GAA? It would, of course, lead to a complete overhaul of the entire system. In a professional GAA environment, county allegiances would have to make way for the future. In turn, perhaps the provincial structure would have to yield for a sufficient ranking of sides come draft day.
Of the 33 teams competing, the lowest-ranked team would assume the first pick. So one of Carlow/Louth etc., who were eliminated at the earliest stage in 2014, would have first option on the Sigerson Cup’s top graduates.
The likes of Kerry’s Conor Cox (UCC), and James O’Donoghue (UL), or Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey (UCD), yet to experience intercounty (or what would now be called professional) football, would be headed off to represent perceived weaker counties.
Meanwhile Kerry, Donegal, and Dublin would be left to choose from those turned down by sides with a higher draft pick.
So let’s consider the pros and cons of such a system.
Firstly, it would deal with the GAA’s most muted of issues; player burnout. Today, the young elite are burdened by potentially training with club, college, county u21, and county senior. This is clearly too much, and has undoubtedly denied the game witnessing the true potential of some of its brightest talents.
College players would not be eligible to play senior intercounty until leaving college. U21 would no longer exist as a grade, while minor could still feasibly go ahead. So the maximum number of teams one could play with would rest at two.
Also, this would be a massive boost for the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups. If top class players under the age of 22 were exclusively to be seen for their college side, popularity for the competitions would surely skyrocket.
Inter-varsity games have been taking place up and down the country in recent weeks, and while many of the players involved are no strangers to packed stadia in the summer, the biggest crowds this month have not exceeded a few hundred. Look at the United States, and the profile of collegiate sports there. Enough said.
Only five teams have shared the last twelve All-Ireland Football Championships. This oligopoly has proved difficult to break into for weaker sides.
Given first selection on the country’s top college graduates, the weaker counties would find it easier to bridge this gap. It would stem the progress of the top sides. Simply, a more open championship would be in store.
Such a system would not damage the club game either. Keep the club system. College and professional players alike would represent their local club.
The college season could run simultaneously with the professional championship, and therefore far more time would be allowed to run the club championship. A professional, franchise-based GAA would not remove the parochial aspect of our games, and could arguably strengthen it.
Now for the cons.
Needless to say, this would require a complete restructuring of the entire GAA. The mere mention of professionalism is taboo in certain quarters, but many feel that it is an inevitable phenomenon looking into the future.
With the dawn of professionalism, incentive to transfer counties would become a bigger issue. It may not be the optimum solution, but a draft system would be a workable solution nonetheless.
Another stumbling block may be that, in sports where there is currently a draft system in place, there is a massive emphasis on physical stature. Players do not finish filling out physically until 23/24, and therefore it suits them to ply their trade at varsity level until then.
However, in GAA technical ability holds far greater sway, and most county players are established in the set-up at the age of 21/22.
A draft system would place a limit on the elite level, and the best players in Ireland would not necessarily play at the elite grade. Would Kerry currently hold Sam Maguire were it not for the efforts of James O’Donoghue last year? It begs an interesting question.
A final obstruction is the raw tradition of the GAA. It is built on inter-county pride and rivalries. Traveling to a match to shout for a side with players coming from far afield seems alien to the GAA supporter. But with the impending inception of the professional era, perhaps this may be the way forward.
Despite these concerns, a draft system remains very much possible.
Now that you have opened your mind, would a draft system work in the GAA? Feel free to close it back up again and shoot me down.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.
Featured image By Tom Marsh from Yorkshire (What a Game! Uploaded by Armbrust) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.