GAA needs the revenue, but can’t forget roots in communities

GAA needs the revenue, but can’t forget roots in communities

It is in the nature of politics that politicians feel obliged to say that they love elections, and always welcome an opportunity for the people to have their say. The reality is, of course, that politicians mostly dread elections because it might herald the day when the magic dies.

With just over three weeks to go until polls open for the European and local elections, a war of words of sorts opened at the weekend. The Taoiseach Simon Harris, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and even the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan expressed serious misgivings about important GAA championship fixtures being behind a so-called ‘paywall’ on GAAGO rather than free-to-air on RTÉ.

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Jarlath Burns was quick to defend his association, and the need to generate additional revenue to pump into the grassroots of the game.

Mr Burns accused the politicians of ‘electioneering’ given that in recent meetings with senior ministers not one word has been uttered about GAAGO. And then when the paywall gets negative feedback on radio phone-in programmes, the ministers suddenly have an issue.

The president of the GAA may be on to something, but there is also a real issue at stake here: one that potentially excludes whole swathes of people, particularly elderly people who struggle with online billing and families who live in areas where the broadband is not sufficient to support a high-quality livestream.

The GAA is flourishing in every corner of this island – even in areas not traditionally associated with Gaelic games. East Belfast GAA, in the shadow of the shipyard cranes once the symbol of unionist hegemony, is now the largest club in Ulster. In prosperous south Dublin, once dominated almost exclusively by hockey and rugby, Cuala is one of the largest clubs.

Irish people can be rightly proud of the GAA and the fact that monies generated are spent in local areas. In almost every parish in the country, the local GAA facilities are a vital resource in a community when other facilities have been stripped away.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was many GAA clubs who worked hard to ensure that people who were shielding could get their groceries. As the ban on public Masses was lifted, it was often volunteers from the local GAA club who helped ensure people could gather for worship in a safe manner.

The genius of the GAA has been the amateur status and the fact that it is a common project in a parish: the players might lift the silverware after a thrilling performance on the pitch, but they do so not only on their own behalf but on behalf of the man who cut the grass on that pitch, and the woman who prepared the half-time sandwiches, the mammies who washed the kits and the dads who were up at the crack of dawn opening the gates and getting the ground ready.

The future of the GAA relies on this interconnectedness, and the fact that it is a project people share in.

Mr Burns is evidently unrepentant about the commercial decisions to put certain games behind a paywall. The organisation, he says, is spending some €500 million in developing club and county facilities in the next few years, and that money has to come from somewhere.

However, a way should be found to ensure that people are not left behind and that those with inadequate broadband or an inability to navigate the digital world can enjoy the sports that they have enjoyed their entire lives.

The GAA is nothing if it is not community, and all the shiny stadiums might as well be museums if committed Gaels living down the road who can’t make it to a match can’t enjoy it in the peace of their own homes.