Big challenge ahead for major sports

It is easy being a GAA supporter this week. Two All-Ireland finals in six days and Croke Park full to capacity. It shows the strength of things.

It is easy being a GAA supporter this week. Two All-Ireland finals in six days and Croke Park full to capacity. It shows the strength of things.

The GAA’s principal competitor field sports, rugby and soccer, are currently experiencing major difficulties. It may be too simplistic an answer to their difficulties, but what we are witnessing is essentially the difference between professional and amateur sport.

Few people will take comfort from the news last week that Ireland has moved out of recession because for many the reality is very differentr. Nonetheless, throughout 2013 the GAA attracted growing numbers to games.

It undoubtedly helped that new counties emerged as championship contenders, particularly in hurling. The numerous ticket packages on offer from the GAA were also an important factor.

A replay in the All-Ireland senior hurling final was another bonus, while the decision to reduce ticket prices in line with the 2012 replay was well received.

There is a danger, though, that the health of the GAA nationally is seen as reflecting the state of things at grassroots level. In many parishes, most especially in rural areas, GAA clubs are experiencing huge challenges with their very survival at stake in some instances.

Dwindling playing resources, principally due to emigration, is affecting the number of teams being fielded and the loss of key players can often mean clubs dropping down to a lower grade.

Economic downturn

The economic downturn has made it more difficult to raise funds. Every year clubs must budget for a wide (and growing) range of fixed costs covering insurances, levies and registrations.

Add in the variable, yet very necessary, expenditure to cover the day to day running of the club and its all adds up to a major headache for the majority of officers. The difficulties facing rugby and soccer here are well documented.

Money is vital in every sport whether it is operating in a professional or amateur arena. In professional sport finance dictates everything. Failure to qualify for the next World Cup, plus the resignation of the national team manager, has left Irish soccer in a difficult place. The bottom line is that the FAI needs a full Aviva Stadium for every game.

In the circumstances the FAI did a very good job, but the income from those games was below expectations.

Like the GAA, the FAI has big commitments to the game at grassroots level. The past decade has seen additional coaching resources being deployed and a number of pitch developments have also been part-funded by the FAI.

High profile manager

The appointment of a new high-profile national team manager will help, but soccer is a results driven business. Get the right results and filling the Aviva becomes less challenging.

Irish rugby is facing difficulties on two fronts. The first is the resale of premium seats at the Aviva Stadium, which is not easy. The second and, in many ways far more serious issue, is the threat by English and French clubs to exit the Heineken Cup. If that was to happen it would have a seismic impact on rugby here.

The tensions within the various countries are clearly visible, but I suspect that a lot is happening away from the glare of the media. At the heart of the current impasse is money.

English and French rugby clubs are owned by rich tycoons and many are in serious debt. They want a bigger slice of the funds from sponsorship and media rights. This matter has still some way to go before it is resolved.

The absolute certainty is that English and French clubs will get more money whatever resolution emerges. That will mean less finance for the Irish, Welsh, Italian and Scottish rugby unions. The IRFU has been hugely successful in how it has retained the services of the top players. If the English and French clubs get their way, an exodus of the top Irish players in a newly formed competition is a certainty.

Difficulties times lie ahead for rugby and soccer but the GAA has its own challenges closer to home.