Wex­ford’s finest has opened a real can of worms

With hurl­ing as his day job, the Wex­ford star has reignited the de­bate on pro­fes­sion­al­ism in the GAA

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORT - By Mark Gallagher

‘GAA PLAY­ERS ARE VIEWED AS A SAFE BET TO PRO­MOTE BRANDS’

IT SAYS some­thing about the chang­ing na­ture of the GAA’s un­usual and un­easy re­la­tion­ship with com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, that it can be sym­bol­ised by a sim­ple house­hold ap­pli­ance. On the morn­ing of the 1985 All-Ire­land foot­ball fi­nal, the Ir­ish public opened their Sun­day news­pa­pers to see a full-page photo of shirt­less Kerry play­ers pos­ing around a wash­ing ma­chine un­der the slo­gan ‘Only Bendix can white­wash this lot’.

The ad­vert, now hang­ing pride of place in one Kil­lar­ney pub as a relic of a dif­fer­ent age, was sup­posed to her­ald the start of a three-year link be­tween Kerry and the elec­tron­ics com­pany. In re­turn, Bendix would pro­vide fi­nance to up­grade GAA grounds around the King­dom. Even though it was ar­gued that no player re­ceived pay­ment, Croke Park deemed the deal out of or­der and it caused such ruc­tions that one of the reper­cus­sions is be­lieved to have been linked to Mick O’Dwyer be­ing over­looked for the role of Ire­land Com­pro­mise Rules man­ager. The hon­our, in­stead went to his long-time ad­ver­sary Kevin Hef­fer­nan.

Last Tues­day morn­ing, GAA play­ers were once again pos­ing with a wash­ing ma­chine. But this time, Ciarán Kilkenny and Lee Chin (right) did it with the full ap­proval of the GAA. The Beko pho­to­shoot even took place at Croke Park.

The rules gov­ern­ing player en­dorse­ments were re­laxed in 1997, an ef­fort to quell any ‘pay-for-play’ agenda. Like ev­ery­thing within the GAA, it was achieved with baby steps. Ini­tially, play­ers were only al­lowed to keep half the money with the rest go­ing to a team fund. Within a few years, as the Gaelic Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion be­gan mak­ing noise, they could keep it all. From that start­ing point, the as­so­ci­a­tion has reached the point that on Tues­day, Lee Chin sat in the play­ers’ lounge at Croke Park and re­luc­tantly ex­plained to jour­nal­ists that he is a full-time GAA player, sup­ported by three per­sonal spon­sors. Chin’s rev­e­la­tions would ap­pear to in­di­cate that the GAA has reached a fork in the road when it comes to the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of its play­ers. The spec­tre of pro­fes­sion­al­ism or semi-pro­fes­sion­al­ism has never loomed larger. Chin is not the first full-time in­ter-county player. In the past few years, Richie Ho­gan, Karl Lacey, Kieran Don­aghy and Dar­ran O’Sul­li­van have all re­vealed that they have taken time off their pro­fes­sional ca­reers to as­sist their sport­ing lives. All talked up the pos­i­tive ef­fect such a move had on their game. The salient dif­fer­ence is that those play­ers were tak­ing ca­reer breaks or in the process of chang­ing jobs. Chin, to all in­tents and pur­poses, is a full­time hurler be­cause he reck­oned he couldn’t reach his po­ten­tial while jug­gling a day job.

As a sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion, the GAA has long been con­di­tioned to fear any men­tion of the dreaded P-word. This has ex­isted for more than a cen­tury, since the Clare hurlers went to a train­ing camp be­fore the 1914 All-Ire­land fi­nal and had their lost wages cov­ered by their county board (Laois did the same thing the fol­low­ing year). A few decades later, the prac­tice of top play­ers get­ting cash to travel to the US opened a de­bate about pay-for­play. It is lit­tle won­der that Chin is un­com­fort­able with any de­scrip­tion of him as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete.

‘I don’t like when peo­ple ask me or re­fer to me as a pro­fes­sional, ask me am I liv­ing as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete – I’m not, I’m far from that,’ he ex­plained be­fore point­ing out he makes a liv­ing with work he does with three spon­sors – Ful­fil, O’Neill’s and iPro Sport.

Even if the Wex­ford star is in­sis­tent that this is some­thing which only works for him at this stage of his life, he may have also un­wit­tingly un­cov­ered a model to be adopted by more play­ers into the fu­ture. It is worth not­ing that this model emerged only days af­ter a leaked com­mit­tee re­port into what the GAA might look like in 2034, its 150th an­niver­sary, sug­gested that county play­ers and man­agers might be com­pen­sated for their com­mit­ment to the sport while still re­tain­ing their am­a­teur sta­tus. One way that might work is de­vel­op­ing what Chin has done.

Chin is one of the most mar­ketable play­ers in Gaelic Games. Com­fort­able in front of both the cam­era and a mi­cro­phone and blessed with an abil­ity to turn it on in matches when needed most, as he did in last year’s Le­in­ster semi­fi­nal against Kilkenny, he is ideal for any spon­sors.

But if one player, no mat­ter how mar­ketable, can be­come a full­time player, why not oth­ers? There will be an un­spo­ken fear that this may be­come a trend. Has Chin opened a can of worms and cre­ated a se­ri­ous headache for an as­so­ci­a­tion wed­ded to the idea of am­a­teurism? Some in­dus­try in­sid­ers are not so sure.

‘It would be fool­ish to sug­gest that a player could not go full-time on the back of per­sonal en­dorse­ments, how­ever un­likely it might be to be­come wide­spread,’ ex­plains Kieran McSweeney of Te­neo PSG, who works with a num­ber of county play­ers on spon­sor­ship and en­dorse­ment ar­range­ments.

‘There are only a se­lect num­ber of GAA play­ers out there who’s per­sonal en­dorse­ments reach five-fig­ure sums. How­ever, it is very lim­ited num­ber in com­par­i­son to the overall pool of county play­ers. The ma­jor­ity of guys turn­ing up to pro­mote brands are do­ing so on a case-by-case ba­sis rather than be­ing on a re­tainer to be the face of a prod­uct or com­pany, so it would not be a fea­si­ble course of ac­tion for the vast ma­jor­ity of play­ers.’

Even for an elite player, the de­ci­sion to live off en­dorse­ments only is fraught with risk. A cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in­jury will mean a year out of the game. Out of sight will mean out of mind. ‘When you are not in the spot­light, en­dorse­ments dry up very quickly,’ McSweeney points out. ‘If you’ve left a job, you could be left strug­gling fi­nan­cially.

‘Com­pare that to a pro­fes­sional soc­cer player. If he gets in­jured or dropped, he will still be paid by his club even if spon­sor­ship deals dry up. That’s a mas­sive dif­fer­ence be­tween a pro­fes­sional and am­a­teur. For a pro, it’s an added bonus, not a means of earn­ing a liv­ing.

‘The other big dif­fer­ence is the size of the deals. I read in a Forbes re­port re­cently that Cris­tiano Ron­aldo earned $35 mil­lion from

en­dorse­ments; that’s a tad more than any GAA player.’

Op­por­tu­ni­ties are in­creas­ing for county play­ers, though. On­side, a Dublin-based com­pany, are pro­vid­ing such open­ings. They have been in op­er­a­tion for 13 years and this has al­ready been their busiest year.

‘Whereas in the past, spon­sor­ship only ac­counted for be­tween five to 10 per cent of mar­ket­ing bud­gets, it is now up to 20 or 25 per cent,’ says John Trainor of On­side. ‘Busi­nesses are re­spond­ing to the re­search that the public look on spon­sor­ship more favourably than other forms of mar­ket­ing. And GAA play­ers are viewed as a safe bet as brand am­bas­sadors.’

And if other GAA play­ers are to fol­low Chin’s lead, Trainor be­lieves it is vi­tal they be­come ac­tive on so­cial me­dia. ‘If play­ers do have an am­bi­tion to de­velop a com­mer­cial model which can sus­tain a life­style, their so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity would be a very im­por­tant driver. Trainor be­lieves there may be scope for like-minded play­ers from dif­fer­ent coun­ties to club to­gether and source po­ten­tial spon­sor­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties. ‘If a busi­ness or prod­uct is look­ing for a brand am­bas­sador from Gal­way, Tip­per­ary, Dublin and Cork, there is cer­tainly a case for play­ers from each of those coun­ties join­ing up.’

Suc­cess­ful cam­paigns like Kel­logg’s Cúl Camps have shown that lo­calised am­bas­sadors work well. But there’s an al­ter­na­tive strat­egy that fol­lows on from Chin’s ex­am­ple.

Pa­tron­age re­mains strong in Ire­land, espe­cially within the GAA. Rather than a lo­cal busi­ness putting their hands in the pocket to sup­port the county team’s train­ing fund, they may now see more value in spon­sor­ing two or three of their county’s main play­ers, so they can sus­tain the life­style of a full-time ath­lete.

That’s just one of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that might grow from Lee Chin pulling back the cur­tain this week and show­ing that it is now pos­si­ble to be a full-time county player – op­por­tu­ni­ties that can be grasped within the pa­ram­e­ters of the GAA’s un­usual and un­easy re­la­tion­ship with com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion.

ROLE MODEL: Lee Chin is full-time as a Wex­ford hurler now

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