ALMOST exactly a year ago, when Ger Mulryan, the GAA’s director of finance said in his annual report that while the “trajectory of the finances is good”, Mulryan still cautioned about the future, saying that the association would face different challenges in 2021.
Mulryan though, wasn’t aware at that time of just how big that challenge would become for the GAA, and not just in 2021.
Before the pandemic began stalking the country last spring, Mulryan’s fears about the challenges of emulating the financial results of 2019 were easily defined.
For a start, no concerts were planned for Croke Park in 2020, primarily because bands were disinclined to arrange tours with soccer’s Euro 2020 set to be played across 12 European cities, including Dublin.
In that context, the Croke Park stadium company wouldn’t have been able to provide the same amount of revenue which appearances by ‘Westlife’ and ‘The Spice Girls’ had generated in 2019.
The GAA’s central revenues surged in 2019, rising by 16% to €74 million. The increases were driven by much better match revenues and a significant dividend of €10.5 million - up 31% - from the Croke Park stadium company.
Gate receipts in 2019 had recovered after a slump in 2018, primarily through a combination of ticket price increases and bigger crowds. That was particularly evident in the football championship, which bounced back with a 43% increase in revenues, amounting to €5.5 million. Three million of that came from the Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland final replay, but the overall trend was up with a 12% increase in All-Ireland series crowds.
Overall gate receipts were up by 22%, but the breakdown of those figures underlined how big the challenge is for the GAA even in a highly profitable season – of the 364 match days organised by Central Council in 2019, just 42 were profitable, meaning that 322 ran at a loss.
But with no guarantees of any future financial assistance, the GAA is now on thinner financial ice with accumulated losses for 2020-2021 projected to reach around €50 million, The GAA are currently in the process of trying to design a financial plan to run their competitions.
That won’t be easy but there is still the assumption that some Government grant will be required to fill the financial hole in 2021.
However, in an article by John Fogarty in the Irish Examiner in early December, Fogarty obtained, via a Freedom of Information request, details which revealed the 2020 subvention is unlikely to be repeated.
Fogarty wrote how an email from principal officer of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Brian O’Malley dated September 25 stated that approval for the €15m of additional funding for the GAA was “a once-off intervention” for “disbursement in 2020”.
The championships were a clear success in that regard. But with the third wave of the pandemic proving to be a more troubling and challenging time for everyone, and with many businesses on their knees, it will be difficult for the Government to give financial assistance to the GAA ahead of other sectors crying out for monetary intervention.
The GAA’s financial committee accepted as much when the GAA were drawing up their fixtures plan for 2021; the committee were keen for the club championship to go ahead first, so that there might be crowds – and money coming in – during an inter-county championship later in the year.
So where is the money going to come from now? During the week, Club Players Association (CPA) chairman Micheál Briody said that the GAA has to borrow to ensure the 2021 season goes ahead as planned.
Croke Park may yet have to apply for loans to run their programmes of games but Briody, a managing director of a food production company, and a qualified accountant, suggested the GAA borrowing against a number of their very significant assets.
“As a member of the GAA, I don’t see any problem with the association borrowing money,” said Briody. “You’re seeing in the Premier League that it’s unlikely there will be fans back in the grounds before the end of the current season. That is not going to be any different here.
“The GAA is very much like a small government and nobody objects to the Government borrowing at the moment to do what they’re doing. Borrow over a 10-year period, say, and the split season will help cut costs in the future for both club and county.”
Whatever happens, that future is certainly unsure.
Last September, former GAA President Nicky Brennan said that, with the inevitable cutbacks stemming from the current crisis, and unless there’s significant money coming from the Government, it could “take the GAA 10 years to fully recover”.
That’s the bleakest prospect imaginable but GAA Director General Tom Ryan outlined as far back as last April just how difficult the GAA’s short-to-medium term future certainly will be.
“We’ve got to manage things carefully now to make sure that we’re not paying for the legacy of 2020 in 2021 and 2022 and beyond,” said Ryan.
Last year was an exceptional year but 2021 is going to be just as exceptional given the challenges that it will present.
Normal is still a long way away yet.