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Fans in the stands? Could be next year

GAA faces a chilling prospect

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A swan sits on a canal bank outside Croke Park Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

A swan sits on a canal bank outside Croke Park Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

A swan sits on a canal bank outside Croke Park Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

It's undocumented precisely what Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump discussed during the Taoiseach's recent visit to Washingston DC, although it's unlikely they talked sport.

Currently mired in the same global health crisis, their public pronouncements suggest the heads of states' respective priorities are not closely aligned.

"We have to get our sports back," Trump huffed the other night during his latest press conference.

"I'm tired of watching baseball games that are 14-years-old."

Amen to that. The Taoiseach is demonstrably less agitated in clamouring for the resumption of sporting normalities.

But anyone for whom green fields with white markings forms the canvas of their summer will have found his comments yesterday in the Dáil chilling.

"Only a scientific breakthrough," he warned, "a vaccine or an effective anti-viral medicine will truly allow life to go back to being as it was."

Bleak

Bleak, and all, as the Taoiseach's words were, they lack the sort of specificity required to inform GAA fixture-making.

Today, a remotely-held Special Congress will anoint the GAA's Management Committee with authority to formulate this year's Championships in any way they see fit.

Guesswork aside, no one in that meeting can accurately calculate when people in this country will be permitted to congregate in large numbers again.

And so the likelihood is that soon, the GAA will have to ask itself a question that would have seemed unfathomable just two months ago: is it better to play the inter-county Championships in front of empty stands or not at all?

An editorial in yesterday's New York Times posed a similar question in the broader sporting context.

'When Will Sports Come Back?' What Has to Happen First?'

The relevant snippet in a GAA context was in the sub-headline.

'Sports leagues face large, but not insurmountable, obstacles to even getting games back on television. Fans in the stands? Wait till next year.'

The financial implications of this for the GAA are severe.

For the GAA, more than any sporting organisation currently groping around in the dark for clues as to how best to proceed, bums on seats is effectively its business model.

A month before the first coronavirus case was detected in Ireland, the GAA announced that its revenue had topped the €70m mark in 2019, coming in at €73.8m. Gate receipts accounted for €36m (49 per cent) of their yearly revenue.

The All-Ireland football final replay alone generated €3m. Croke Park hosted four money-spinning concerts.

Commercial income, derived from media rights and competition sponsors, came in at €19.9m.

This year, there were no scheduled Croke Park concerts. No papal visits.

Come back in 2021, Garth. All is forgiven.

It's not that the GAA is the only major sporting body in this country for which the silencing of whirring turnstiles would be financially catastrophic.

Customers

It is, however, the only one for which it might not be feasible to stage matches without paying customers.

Last year, the IRFU's turnover was €87.5m, of which 81 per cent was generated on the back of the men's international game through ticket sales, hospitality, sponsorship and amortised income.

There is no specific figure available for gate receipts but at €115 a pop for category 1 tickets for Ireland's home Six Nations games against France and England this year, it makes up a considerable percentage of earnings.

In marked contrast to the GAA, a major televised match is thought to be worth roughly €2.5m to the IRFU.

Even if the GAA could rework its existing broadcast deal and flog the live rights to every one of their hastily-convened Championship matches, the limitations of their market mean it would effectively be counting peanuts by comparison.

Yesterday, somewhat surprisingly, the PGA Tour announced a new revised schedule.

Officials are apparently confident the Charles Schwab Challenge, at Fort Worth from June 11 can take place with on-site testing for coronavirus in place.

Though they plan to keep events closed to the public until July 9, the PGA tour effectively admitted it could play from now until the end of the season with small, or no crowds, and still make money. Not a luxury the GAA can afford.

As GAA Director General Tom Ryan - who perhaps serendipitously, previously held the role of Director of Finance - said recently: "All we have is matches. That's all we have. We don't have an international organisation that can come to our aid.

"Everything that we generate is generated pretty much on the island of Ireland and it's all generated within probably a two- or three-month period of the year which is the period that could be lost to us income-wise."

Question

Before the GAA ask itself whether it might proceed behind closed doors, it would do well to ask their inter-county players the same question.

Some would surely play, regardless of circumstance.

Other would decline, particularly if jolted into action at short notice in late autumn/early winter.

But with the absence of any considerable revenue stream flowing from the games themselves, it would be those same players - and a Gaelic Games-starved public - that the GAA is fixing those competitions for.

The alternative - the one outlined by the GPA in their address to members on Wednesday evening - seems too bleak to countenance.