Friday, September 28, 2007

No end in sight to ten years of tinkering

Ahead of Saturday's Special Congress in Croke Park it seems that there is little consensus on the Hurling Development Committee's proposals to once more change the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship.

It's no wonder. Martin Breheny summarized the problem perfectly in Wednesday's Irish Independent, I've got format fatigue: 'There are no easy solutions, but constantly tinkering with the format is only compounding the problem... The game deserves better but while so many vested interests play the veto card the problems will continue. By changing format so often, it's merely confusing a situation where everybody knows that the only fair way to run the All-Ireland championship is through either a straight knock-out system or a 'Champions League' format.'

Hear. Hear. At least someone in the debate is speaking sense. The supporters and fans want a simple format such as those suggested above. (see also quote from Pat Daly, Head of Games Development) It would also allow for the most essential condition of a fair championship: that all teams should face the same number of games to win the championship. Alas, that's just not possible. The existence of the Leinster and Munster championships allow no scope for manoeuvre leading to the confusing and convoluted compromises such as those on the table for Saturday's meeting. The comments from Munster Council chairman, Jimmy O'Gorman, reported in Wednesday's Examiner, in response to the mooted Champions League format, demonstrate the entrenched attitudes and "we're all right, Jack" mentality that makes substantial progress impossible.

It's true that losing the Munster championship would be a great sacrifice. But hurling has always suffered from a problem of competitive balance. Recent meddling in the championship format has done little to change that as the chances of different teams winning the All-Ireland have not increased. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary continue to dominate the championship. The rationale for change is the right one; to keep the championship compelling and to help hurling develop outside of the traditional base. Increasing the uncertainty of outcome generates interest from supporters, increases the demand for watching matches and interest in playing the game. Only radical proposals can bring about such change.

Another much talked about benefit of change would be to provide more free days for club fixtures. There is increasing frustration among club players because club fixtures have been crowded out of the summer programme to allow for the inter-county championship. Club players are dissatisfied because they don't know when they are going to play. It's simple. This impacts family and social life in particular for holiday planning. Also, when club players finally get to play their championship it's cramped into September and October. Why should they have to idle the summer months away when playing conditions are best? Club and county should be played in tandem throughout the year, whatever the injuries to the county stars.

These problems are not just limited to hurling. The football championship is also suffering the same problems of competitive balance and lack of level playing field. Without taking away from their considerable achievements it is fair to say that Kerry have their place reserved in the quarterfinals of the All-Ireland every year by virtue of the backdoor system. Win or lose the Munster final and they are in the quarter finals. Three victories later and they have won the All-Ireland. Compare that with teams from Leinster or Ulster and the paths they face to get to the quarter final stage. (For an easy comparison look at the county by county results on the Irish Times website.) Football too, at all levels, would benefit from a simple open draw knock out system or Champions League format.

However, as long as the Provincial Councils remain stubborn and self-interested there will be no simple answers and everyone will continue to lose out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The GPA has cried wolf too often

The Gaelic Players' Association (GPA) is threatening anew to hold our national games to ransom. Disgruntled with the lack of progress over how to distribute the €5 million put aside by the previous Minister for Sport, John O'Donoghue, the GPA Chief Executive, Dessie Farrell, has once again hinted at strike action (see Irish Times, 5th September 2007, GPA suggest strike action on €5 million) if the issue isn't quickly resolved. The Greedy Players' Association is impatient. They want to get their hands on the money and they want it now.

This is crying wolf one time too many (see An Fear Rua, Are the GPA like the boy who cried wolf?). It's time that the vast majority of the GAA-the volunteers, players of all levels, and supporters-stand up  to these ultimatums and let the GPA know that strike action will not be tolerated.

Sure, the GPA has some legitimate grievances, and pressure from the organization has improved the GAA's attitude to players' well being. The appointment of Paraic Duffy, a player welfare officer, by the GAA, is an example of progress, a direct result of the influence the GPA has brought to bear on GAA headquarters. Improvements in other areas on the GPA's campaign list, such as improving the insurance/injury scheme for all club and county players and taking action to solve the fixture crisis, would also be welcome improvements to our games for all players and supporters.

However, the fundamental problem with the GPA, despite their protestations to the contrary, is that they are pushing the GAA toward 'pay-for-play'. Although they say they realize this is not feasible (see for example this interview with Dessie Farrell in DCU's alumni magazine), whether be design or direct consequence, their actions are driving this dangerous momentum. 

It's hard to trust the GPA on 'pay-for-play' when one of their objectives is a collective bargaining agreement with the GAA. Do they really consider their situation is akin to negotiations between a union and employers? Read their website and the statements they make. The speak about themselves as if they were exploited workers in a sweatshop. The fix they want is easy though. Compensation can relieve their "plight". Their newly designed logo also displays their avarice, as it's a blatant rip-off of the NBA (National Basketball Association) and MLB (Major League Baseball) logos, both professional sports organizations. 

It's only very recently that the GPA has created an Associate Membership scheme to "enable all GAA players, club members, supporters/fans and officials to become part of the GPA network". The aim is to strengthen the bond between club and county. Whey has it taken them eight years? At least they can take credit for realizing that such a bond exists. Once again however, the true intention of this scheme is not clear-cut. GPA Associate  members will not have voting rights and will have no influence on the organization. What's the interest so? Well, the associate membership fee of €50 allows access to a wide range of offers and services from the GPA, not to mention, a polo shirt with the GPA logo. While a good deal on car insurance may be welcome the GPA will no doubt, use their new "grassroots" members to further legitimate their organization and in future claim that the GPA represents a broad spectrum of the GAA, top to bottom, and not just inter-county players. Watch to see how they spin this in the future and look to leverage a broader membership base in negotiations with the GAA. Or maybe that's too cynical and Dessie wants a salary to match his lofty title.

The common good of the GAA is threatened by the GPA's self-interest in pursuit of compensation. The GPA is constantly reminding us of how much financially they loose through their commitment and dedication to playing Gaelic games. Their lack of concern with reports that county boards are digging themselves into a financial black hole of debt, brought about by the increased cost of player travel, catering and medical expenses that is stretching their budgets to the limit. According to the Irish Independent, Westmeath's debt has climbed to €641,000 (see Irish Independent, August 10th 2007, Westmeath football on the brink of financial crisis) and the county board is facing a financial crisis. If you think this is an isolated case of mismanaged finances, think again. In an interview with the Sunday Independent on 10 June 2007,  Tipperary Manager, Babs Keating, revealed that the Tipperary County Board had spent €870,000 training the inter-county teams in 2006, with no success to show for it, or indeed, to pay for it. As Babs said, in his time "the players togged out under a galvanised sheet with only a lantern to light them and after training you'd just have a cup of tea and a sandwich. But the present squad aren't left for anything". If the figures are like that now what would they be like of the players are receiving payment directly? 

At a time when the GAA is coming under such financial pressure, and facing serious competition for players and members from rugby and soccer, the focus of all within the organization should be on putting money back into the game: improving competitive structures for players at all levels and working to encourage more volunteers to help out with the running of clubs and the coaching of players. 

So it's time to say enough is enough to the self-interested GPA. As TV3's 6-part documentary series, "Grass Roots of the GAA", rightly points out, the volunteers of the organization who give their time-at no cost-to coach, administer, look after grounds, coordinate fundraising, drive youngsters to games, and wash the dirty jerseys, are the real heroes of the GAA. It's their work and passion behind the scenes that is fundamental to the success of the GAA. The spotlight has been on the inter-county players for too long. They are the tip of the iceberg. It's time to talk about the unsung heroes and time the GPA stopped crying wolf, their credibility is wearing thin.