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Inter-county restart under financial cloud

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HISTORY-MAKERS: Dublin’s Brian Fenton, Stephen
Cluxton and James McCarthy celebrate their five
in-a-row glory after beating Kerry last September.
Pic: Sportsfile

HISTORY-MAKERS: Dublin’s Brian Fenton, Stephen Cluxton and James McCarthy celebrate their five in-a-row glory after beating Kerry last September. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

HISTORY-MAKERS: Dublin’s Brian Fenton, Stephen Cluxton and James McCarthy celebrate their five in-a-row glory after beating Kerry last September. Pic: Sportsfile

At an 'in camera' meeting of the Mayo county board early last winter at the height of the dispute with an international fundraising group, the former treasurer Kevin O'Toole gave an insight to delegates about the cost of running the various county teams.

Front and centre was, of course, the county's flagship football team which has performed to such a level for the best part of a decade. Sometimes the group would meet for training in Athlone midweek to facilitate the 12 or so coming from Dublin.

But that meant bringing the other 44, players and backroom, to the midlands from Mayo, leading to a substantial rise in costs that O'Toole put at around €2500.

Eye-catching

It was a really eye-catching figure. If a change of venue could load on so much then how much was the actual cost of each session when all travel, food, nutrition, medical and strength and conditioning services, statistical, video and equipment costs are factored in? At a guess, upwards of €5,000, in line with Kevin McStay's contention when he was the Roscommon football manager that it was a minimum of €15,000 per week to run their show.

Not everyone has a party of 56, as O'Toole revealed, to shift around the country in the name of inter-county training but still, it was this kind of mobilisation that a number of county chairs had in mind last week when they questioned the sustainability of an inter-county season which officially cranks back up in action in a little over a month.

True, if it happens, it will be short for the majority of counties, a minimum of seven weeks for around half and no more than 10 for all bar four in football and hurling.

But even at that, funding all that goes with preparing a county team to any standard comes at a cost that so many counties are now fearful that they will not be able to come close to meeting, in light of the Government's decision not to increase the numbers permitted to attend games, either as participants or observers from 200 to 500.

While the difference seems small, 300 more patrons paying around €10 at some games makes a critical difference to already cash-strapped counties whose costs are generally front-loaded in the earlier part of the year and then offset by local gate revenues later on that balance the books. It is, for the vast majority, their lifeblood, far away from the commercial attractiveness of other counties and something that the onset of streaming, however novel, can't make up the ground on.

In the current climate, a local gate windfall was never expected but with the majority of games now being played through the 200-capacity window, even the revised figures are now going to deliver just a fraction.

Last year, counties generated close to €10m on local gate receipts that helped to shore up the running of their county teams.

Galway led the charge with €977k that softens the impact of running two elite teams but they're looking at a much different picture now.

Nine other counties generated in excess of €400k that went a long way to supporting other activities.

Last week's decision to keep the capacity at 200 was based, not on what was happening inside grounds but outside where congregation and travel to and from venues were cited as a potentially problematic.

Rising

On that basis, is there any reason to believe that this will change in three weeks' time when moving on to the next phase, or not, will be up for discussion in light of rising case numbers of Covid-19. And if it does lift, it's impossible to see it lift beyond 500, even if the inter-county season gets the green light.

It's a long way from conversations around venues best suited to accommodate crowds for provincial finals and whether Croke Park could host 22,000 or 27,000.

Crowds of even 500 at county semi-finals and finals spell financial peril for many counties with the knock-on effect that county teams can't be supported to the same specification.

No wonder some county chairs expressed real fear for the future, especially if they are expected to deliver service and support at the same level teams have become accustomed to.

Even transport and accommodation for the remaining two rounds of the league are going to prove a financial and physical challenge if social distancing protocols are to be observed.

Croke Park can obviously go some way to providing some support when a portion of the Government's €40m pledge to sporting federations comes good while some broadcasting money can also be recouped if a championship does press ahead.

Separately there are growing public health implications that could yet bring down local and inter-county championship entirely.

In three counties (Kildare, Offaly, Laois) play has been suspended for two weeks and you have to wonder that if this happened in the midst of a tightly scheduled inter-county championship what the fall-out would be, especially in the context of "no one being left behind" earlier in the year.

But it's difficult to see how a championship would be financially sustainable unless some very hard concessions and decisions are made. Agreements with service providers and reductions in expenses and costs will all be required in most counties to make a championship happen yet some will be able to continue on. It's going to take some hard bargaining to arrive at any solution and, even then, there will be major imbalances with some counties having more access to benefactors willing to account for any shortfall.

Ultimately, it may require further State support to ensure it happens.