Turning the numbers game in their favour

Lead
Long plagued by high emigration and a struggle to field club teams, many traditionally poorer counties are now cashing in on their ex-pat communities, writes Ewan MacKenna. 

Just as in so many other ways, they were the pioneers when it came to fundraising. Back in 1981, ahead of their world tour, Kerry players started out thinking £20,000 would get them to New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Australia and home. However speaking to Páidí Ó Sé, Annascaul hotelier Tom McCarthy warned that it was “chicken feed”, the target was revised upward to £60,000 but it was another wall for the group to break down. In the end, domestic donations came in at £102,000 and not only did it get them around the globe, every man was handed £1,800 in spending money. The county had stumbled upon their earning potential as a brand before the word was even understood.

It’s an area they’ve been building on ever since, but if two things have changed it’s the scale of the income and its source. By way of an explanation, just a couple of weeks back a host of Kerry stars returned from the States, €1m closer to building a €5.8m training complex. The county board event in New York saw auctioned items given by Rory McIlroy, the Six Nations-winning squad, Tom Watson, Usain Bolt, Henry Shefflin, Paul McGinley and Jean de Villiers. An oil portrait of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh by artist Liam O’Neill sold for €21,000. The American-Ireland Fund contributed €90,000. Meanwhile a gala dinner at Manhattan’s famous Plaza Hotel saw all 420 tickets sold for €1,000 a pop.

This is the flipside of GAA emigration. Kerry have often nobly led the charge when it comes to their concern over small clubs being forced to amalgamate and others being simply left to board-up clubhouse windows as pitches outside grow weeds, but there is a positive. Right now, elite Gaelic games have reached a place where money matters in developing players and maximising talent and with Dublin the only market big enough to support professionalism, Kerry looked abroad to those that left during the 1980s recession and, in the case of America, made fortunes in construction. They aren’t alone.

Polo Grounds

In March 2013, Tipperary manager Eamon O’Shea spent some time across the ocean as part of their fundraising venture.  “That was very much a toe-in-the-water event,” says one county board member. “But it showed that the scope is there to raise the likes of what we saw from Kerry to more modest levels in the €50,000-to-€100,000 range. I would certainly say there is a market there and it could be hugely beneficial to counties on the western seaboard where far more people left from. However, while these people abroad tend to be very generous they don’t like to throw money at an old model. You need to show a system being put in place where there’ll be relative success. That’ll be the key.”

There’s no better example of such a system than Roscommon. Back in 2011, shortly after the IMF arrival, they were a microcosm of what happened across the country. When a member of their board got chatting to a local travel agent, he was told 20 locals a week were booking tickets to just Australia. From knowing the club scene, the travel agent estimated half were young footballers and by the time many would be seen again, there’d be no more football in them. Yet two years later, the county was presenting a four-pronged PowerPoint plan to stakeholders that began with a photo of a scoreboard that read “Mayo 0-21 Roscommon 0-9” before in-depth looks at reform in club structures, infrastructure, team development and finance. As the driving force behind Club Rossie, David O’Connor was over the latter area.

“Targeting abroad was always our plan. We’ve a population of about 60,000 so break that down with demographics, people in college, those working in cities and then realise ordinary GAA people are already funding clubs. When you examined it that way we’d no choice but to spread our wings. But you see, with the greatest respect, the GAA is run predominantly by people with amateur backgrounds in business. Meanwhile professional business people don’t have time for admin roles. We’d to change that because in the business aspect you need expertise.” Such know-how saw 1972 Connacht winner Tom Hunt come on board. Having left for Alaska and then San Francisco, he made a fortune in building and signed up with a six-figure sponsorship deal that’s transformed the set-up.

Kerry

Research I did four years ago showed six of the eight counties that had the most club players’ transfer abroad had Atlantic coastlines. Donegal used this past and present of sons and daughters lost to their advantage. Remember their big-money camps? Sources say they came about due to Jim McGuinness’ friendship with Tony McFadden, chairman of the Donegal Association in London. There are other foreign backers too, meaning 45 people between players, backroom and management can now be seen pulling out of the Mount Errigal in Letterkenny and the Abbey in Donegal town on Saturday lunchtimes – 24 hours before throw-in – even for league games. Last season the county even had five nights in the Algarve before the Division Two decider, training camps in Johnstown House before meeting Derry and Dublin, were in Mullingar the week of the All Ireland quarter-final and in Lough Erne ahead of the final. This in a county that hadn’t two pennies to rub together not long ago.

It goes on. Cavan realised just how many ex-pats had made it big in the pub and building sectors during a five-night trip to New York in April. The €100,000 cost was entirely funded Stateside, with those behind the money admitting the figure was raised in the space of a few phone calls. Such was the influence that when returning to the airport for the flight home, the bus ironically broke down at what was once the site of the Polo Grounds but which is now a rough-and-tough housing project in Harlem. Running late, one backer made a call and within minutes there was an NYPD escort on site.

Of course it’s not a bottomless pit. O’Connor in Roscommon says their efforts aren’t sustainable but they want to go all-in for a generation they see huge potential in. Meanwhile for all the strides in the north-west, when Shay Given showed up to train at Donegal’s “centre-of-excellence” in Convoy last year there was no running water. Then there are those that simply aren’t organised.  When Mayo travelled west last year they were out with a tin box at some functions. Publican and former Mayo goalkeeper Eugene Rooney was so annoyed, he defied the board and raised money which he presented to the senior team itself. As for Clare, just this week a London builder who gave a substantial donation vented that he didn’t so much as receive an acknowledgement, never mind a receipt.

But more and more, such shoddy efforts are the exception. They have to be because the rule is that money has never mattered more, and those that have lost most over the years are seeing there’s plenty to gain as far away shores are gold.

Sunday Business Post
21 June, 2015

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