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GAA, so successful in other areas, lacks marketing vision

"What has encouraged us during the research and consultation stages of the project is that, fundamentally, there is little wrong with the racing as an entertainment, leisure and betting medium," said Racing for Change Chairman Chris McFadden. "What it requires is a clearer structure and better presentation of its strengths - its drama, spectacle and heritage as well as its stars."

The above statement could have come from anybody with vision within the GAA. The most successful sports organization in the country continues to thrive but would do well to copy racing's example and try to get better. More needs to be done to get people of all ages exposed to the wondrous national games.

For starters, there are tourists flocking to Ireland every summer in search of authentic Irish experiences. Almost all of them go home without ever having set foot inside a GAA ground. Championship matches at club and county level take place yards from their hotels but nobody bothers to tell them. All any visitor to the country wants to leave with is a unique story about their trip. What would be more unique than a hurling or football match?

How come no attempt is made to get these visitors into Croke Park for the many games played there which boast large tracts of empty seats? As somebody who has brought a dozen Americans to that stadium for hurling and Gaelic football, I can vouchsafe every one regarded it as the highlight of their trip.

The GAA also has marketing problems nearer home. A few years ago, it was involved in a rather disastrous attempt to create a video game for Gaelic football. Like the first Playstation stabs at any code, it wasn't very good. Instead of building on the prototype though, the authorities seem happy to let the issue lie. This is foolish and short-sighted. Kids today learn more about soccer players from FIFA 10 than they ever do from reading a newspaper or watching television. Croke Park needs to realize that, regardless of the financial cost, it must continue the quest for proper video versions of its games. Surely, the Wii concept especially lends itself to hurling.

Any carping about the money required to fund such a project can be quieted by the next initiative. Improved merchandising would raise the profile of the games and generate enormous new streams of revenue. If it's possible to buy a Munster rugby pencil case in Cork Airport, it should be possible to buy one for the Cork hurlers. Indeed, the easiest thing for the GAA to do in this respect would be to recruit the genius involved in the Munster branding operation. The way in which that brand has risen from interprovincial anonymity to Europe-wide fame is an MBA waiting to be written.

Apart from merchandising and video games, kids need something else to fire their childhood imaginations too. In traditionally successful powerhouses like Kerry, Cork and Kilkenny, every All-Ireland winner can tell stories of the day they first set eyes on Sam or Liam. It was usually in the schoolyard when the victorious team of another era came to visit and to show everybody what the silverware looked like. The majority of students around the island don't ever get to experience that thrill and more's the pity.

Again, the solution here is rather simple. The trophies need to go on tour. The captains of the winning teams should be able to take a year off their regular jobs to work as full-time ambassadors whose job it is to bring Sam and Liam to places they never usually go. Think the young lads in Waterford might get a kick out of seeing the McCarthy cup. How do you think glimpsing Sam Maguire might affect the schoolyards in Mayo? Do you think it might get a little loud out there?

More can also be done to lure children away from the Premiership. The hurling and football leagues will start in a few weeks. Most games will be poorly-attended and the vast majority of Irish children will be simultaneously lounging on their couches watching Sky Sports on Sunday afternoons. This needn't be the case. Every NFL and NHL fixture should open its gates and offer free admission to children under the age of 16 and anyone with a student card. What's there to lose? They wouldn't be going to the games anyway. And who wouldn't want to see an extra couple of thousand at every game? The improved atmosphere might even lead to an increase in prestige for the second-tier competitions.

Of course, the most obvious way to compete with soccer is to learn from it. Perhaps nothing has improved the recognition of professional footballers and enhanced the cult of individual popularity faster than the long-ago decision to put players' names on the backs of their shirts. With the advent of mandatory helmets now making it even harder to see the faces of the finest hurlers, the GAA is, thankfully, being forced to consider a similar move.

"Going forward it's something we might look at," said Director-General Pairic Duffy. "At the moment our primary concern is to get everyone wearing a helmet, that's our first goal. Marketing the games comes after that. But it is a valid point. It's been an issue for quite a long time that hurlers are not as easily recognizable as footballers but at the minute we don't have any plans to do that."

Like all of the above, this needs to be done sooner rather than later.

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