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
‘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