Grounds for concern

General view of the large crowd at Semple Stadium 6/9/2010
Spending massive money on stadia stuck in a timewarp, the GAA are making the same mistake over and over while inexplicably getting no bang for big bucks, writes Ewan MacKenna.

It was 1999 when journalist Paul Howard had the brilliant idea of taking Phil Scraton on a tour of a semi-developed Croke Park. An academic and safety expert, standing on Hill 16 that day he was terrified at what he considered a death trap – little wonder when not long before, those exiting a Dublin-Kildare game stopped under a bridge on a narrow lane to avoid the rain while thousands piled out behind them. It would be another four years until the terrace was rebuilt but some within the sport ridiculed him, pointed to Gaelic games not having a hooligan problem and suggested he stick to that other sport he knows best. How times have changed and, when it comes to infrastructure, how times have caught up with a part of the GAA that embraces a bygone age.

A decade on from that day and Scraton would lead the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s research team and was the primary author of their report. And 16 years on from that day, while Croke Park is now a world-class arena, it’s also the only stadia that the GAA can be truly proud of. As for the rest, some are adequate while the majority are a rag-tag band of unfit for purpose, unsafe for purpose, vanity projects based on ridiculous sizes and clueless projects based on even more ridiculous price tags. For an association that does much right, this is an area where they’re still very much amateur.

General view of the action in front of an empty stand 16/1/2011

Croke Park director Peter McKenna would be well able to tell you why as the fact he has a different vision of what a stadium should provide shoots from the fact he has a correct vision of what a stadium must now provide. And there’s the problem. As much as the GAA likes to cling to its unique ideal, in some ways it cannot escape modern sport and, within such a sphere, there’s now a generation that expect not just a game but an experience, not just a bar to lean on but comfort and facilities. Outside of Croke Park, what’s to be found is no longer good enough for customers who, with sporting choices at home and abroad, will demand much better.

Most frustrating though is that the money already spent should have created that smattering of top-level arenas around the country and that sort of money continues to be spent with no worthy cost-benefit analysis and no lessons learned. Next up: Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the €70m being thrown away as yet again the GAA will barely get a whimper for its buck. There’ll be a new stand, an old roof on the old stand, a lick of paint for two uncovered terraces in a place where it rains 204 days a year, and a back pitch brushed under the tag of centre of excellence. The truth is improvement will be based on the present-day clogged tunnels and seats with no legroom, but by modern standards what will remain will be Soviet in terms of architecture and Russian in terms of leftover bank balance.

Cork

It all brings to mind a comment outside of the redeveloped Semple Stadium in 2009 as the €18m upgrade was shown off. Sure enough they touched up the concourse on the Old Stand and added the Dome on the New Stand side but after a look around the first remark was, “Where did the other €17m go?” Indeed teams still have to jog from nearby Dr Morris Park after warm-ups.

It’s a conversation that could be replicated all over the country. In Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds, the Mackey Stand was built too shallow to allow you to see over the person in front of you, it’s not even parallel to the pitch, and their redevelopment of the rest of the ground in 2004 that involved a basic uncovered stand with 12,000 seats and a couple of terraces came in at €12 million. Meanwhile a McHale Park stand that looks like it was built by a child with Mecanno, and has a roof held up by pillars, cost €16m. They’ve even the nerve to call the place all-seater because of concrete slabs around the rest of ground yet despite this, then-president Christy Cooney upon seeing the renovations remarked, “Tá sé class”. With standards like these, who needs competence?

Aesthetically and functionally you’d be forgiven for presuming they were all done on the cheap but a lot of people in construction have gotten very wealthy. That by extension means they’ve gotten rich off every person who has bought a raffle ticket or sold a lotto ticket and that’s not good enough. Little wonder this week that the GAA never responded to requests about its infrastructure planning.

Stoke

Yet nobody compares what others do for similar money when that shines the murkiest light on the wastage. When turf was turned in 2009, the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin had been agreed on for €86m yet amidst protests over that number, what they got was a 30,748-seater arena that’s indoor, and architecturally iconic worldwide as it’s build in a glasshouse. For Euro 2008, Letzigrund in Zurich and the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt were constructed to the highest Uefa standards for a combined €138.8m, averaging less than Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The 31,895-seater Red Bull Arena in Salzburg was €45m. Meanwhile Swansea’s Liberty Stadium was opened for €37m.

For similar, Southampton and Leicester built Premier League stadiums with large screens, corporate boxes, hospitality areas, club offices and conference centres. That monstrosity in McHale Park cost about the same as the entire Britannia Stadium in Stoke. As for smaller grounds, the GAA would do well to look at cost and product returned in Doncaster and Colchester where 15,231 and 10,105 all-seater grounds with modern facilities came in at €27m and €19m. Yet with these figures and standards readily available, the GAA recently talked about €100m for a 25,000-seat stadium for Leinster.

A general view of McHale Park 16/3/2014

Part of the issue is well-meaning volunteers spending big money that’s not their own. And a bigger issue is well-meaning volunteers playing what is now a big-money game. But too many GAA people don’t see it that way as they refuse to believe they’re in the entertainment game where modern stadia are revenue generators. All the while more and more counties go into debt each year as just like GAA stadia costs, their books don’t add up. And ultimately attendances won’t either as build it right and they might come. But throw it up like they always do and they certainly won’t.

Sunday Business Post
19 April, 2015

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