This weekend, close to 300,000 people will pay to see GAA matches. What’s more, Mayo’s football manager stated this week – with no hint of irony – that Gaelic games were sexy.
With more women than ever before donning the county colours each weekend, it seems safe to say that, in short, the nation is in the grip of GAA chic.
Amazingly, the association, which (particularly for suburban 1980s kids like me) for so long represented old Ireland, tradition, nationalism and the Church, is now somewhat cool. While the recent trend for GAA fawning is a bit nauseating, the commercial point is that the GAA has reinvented itself.
On the other hand, Irish domestic football is still in the doldrums, dwarfed by the monster that is the Premiership.
This week, three of our domestic clubs are still involved in European competitions, yet popular interest is muted. Shels, Bohs and Cork City are all doing well – not that you would know. Our back pages are dominated by celebrity drivel spun by agents acting for a handful of English superstars.
How did this happen? Why did the GAA brand recover and thrive in the face of enormous competition? And how can domestic football learn lessons from it?
At a time when more kids are playing football than ever, how come the top league in that same country remains, for many, an irrelevance?
On the subject of sport and branding, take the fourth sport in Ireland – rugby. It is also thriving. The national team won the Triple Crown and now appears to be the type of side that can challenge at the highest level.
Rugby has always been a corporate money spinner, but this year, the sponsorship market exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
In total, Irish rugby exists on a budget of €30 million a year, €27 million of which comes from the national team.
The success of the team is crucial to the sport, and the way it is marketed and branded is key. This year, rugby extended its audience with the Celtic League, Heineken Cup and the national team’s success, all of which built the brand and generated extra cash.
In the face of enormous competition, sport offers an interesting microcosm of how brands can be managed and cultivated.
What goes for sport also goes for most businesses. If you get your branding right, you should thrive. Many people are paid very well to ensure that this happens. The mantra of the branding industry is “the good exists on the shelf, but the brand exist inside people’s heads”.
In this age of hyper competition, when Irish goods can no longer compete on price,we should be competing inside the heads of domestic and foreign consumers. But how do you do this? How do you solidify emotional attachment to certain goods?
An interesting way to answer this question is to explain what not to do.
Again, a sporting example is revealing.
If there is a cautionary lesson in how not to manage a brand in the face of massive competition, how not to market and invest in the product, how not to cultivate your clients and customers, then I’m afraid the sorry story of the League of Ireland stands out as a cautionary tale for all of us.
As recently as the late 1960s and 1970s, 20,000 and 30,000 Dubliners regularly turned up to see Shamrock Rovers and Bohs, while Shelbourne always had strong support and St Pat’s packed out Richmond Park every second Saturday.
The same was true of Cork Hibs, Cork Celtic and Waterford United. The domestic game was a functioning brand with loyal followers and every prospect of a great future.
There had always been dual allegiances in Ireland, so you could be a Rovers supporter and a Leeds fan at the same time. Although the haemorrhaging of good Irish players to England was always a feature, the domestic game was in good shape.
The local brand was holding up well in the face of increasing competition. However, what happened in the 1970s and 1980s constituted the consummate lesson in how to ruin a brand by appalling marketing. Obviously, the key marketing enemy of the day was TV, and more specifically, Jimmy Hill’s Match of the Day.
Just when English clubs decided to take the game of football seriously as a business, their Irish equivalents went about destroying the brand that had a willing loyal consumer base of close to 100,000 in Dublin alone.
There was no advertising of the game, no sponsorship, no clubs, and, more egregiously, the FAI reacted to falling gates by putting its head in the sand and ignoring its own market. Contrast this with what was happening in the face of the similar marketing domination of English clubs, in countries like Norway.
The Norwegians, who had a smaller fan base than us, responded to the blanket coverage of English football by increasing the local interest with advertising campaigns, match-related giveaways and a well-orchestrated marketing campaign in the print, on local radio and on national TV.
Smaller stadia in Oslo were upgraded at a time when the owners of Shamrock Rovers were selling Milltown to property developers. As a result, the Norwegian league has a top side in Rosenborg. It regularly qualifies for the Champions League, reinforcing both the financial and psychological virtuous cycle.
The clear message for domestic brands is that they can thrive in the face of huge competition, but they have to be managed carefully and marketed assiduously.
The customer must be carefully guarded and cultivated. Otherwise, the lamentable stories of the homeless Shamrock Rovers and the disappeared Cork Hibs will be repeated by Irish brands over and over again.
Tonight, when the games are over, Croker has emptied and all the crowds have gone home, the GAA’s coffers will be even fuller.
Meanwhile, a mile down the road at Dalymount, the tumbleweed will be blowing through the terrace, grass growing between the cracks in the concrete and the ghost of Jimmy Hill will continue to haunt the Des Kelly Carpets stand. No brand, no crowds. No crowds, no cash. No cash, no future.