By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News
Gaelic football players only receive expenses for their efforts
Sports fans dismayed by a landscape in which leading players command mega-salaries and governing bodies only seem to care about the elite levels should study how business is done at the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The Dublin-based GAA, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary, is unique in modern-day sport.
Its players are amateurs, the grass roots are as important as the top echelons, and the majority of big games remain on free-to-air TV.
And unlike football, clubs cannot be bought and sold and there are no private club owners.
The GAA - whose main activities are Gaelic football and hurling - is Ireland's largest sporting organisation, and last year its total revenue was 64m euros, up from 62m euros the year before.
More than 80% of that was recycled back to clubs and counties at the grass-roots level.
Not just business
"The GAA business model is different from other sports in one obvious way - the GAA players are amateur, and that includes the big-name players that generate the sell-out games at Croke Park stadium," says Dr David Hassan of the University of Ulster.
"The clubs and games are based in the community and operate on behalf of those people who are based in the community.
"If the grass roots say some policy proposal is a move in the wrong direction, the administrators cannot just say - as may be the case in English soccer - 'This is just business'."
He said amid the commercialisation of football and rugby, it would be easy to dismiss the GAA, with its member democracy, corporate social responsibility and community identity "as something of a romantic irrelevancy".
"But the GAA, far from demonstrating a lack of commercial strategy, is remarkably successful in all aspects of its operations - financially, strategically and in terms of the cultural and sporting opportunities," adds Dr Hassan.
In its annual report this week, the GAA said that although gate receipts had fallen by 5.1m euros in 2008, that was offset by commercial revenue from sponsorship, which put 16.8m into the coffers.
The GAA also owns Croke Park, revamped at a cost of 270m euros, one of the biggest and most impressive stadiums in Europe.
Founded in 1884
Over 1 million members
Assets in excess of 2.6bn euros
64m euros income in 2008
It has also proved a very successful revenue stream for the association, with Irish rugby and football internationals played there raising 11.7m euros for the GAA in 2008.
On the administrative side, club members elect an executive committee to carry out the running of the club on an annual basis. At the higher echelons of the GAA, such members must vacate their post after four years.
But Dr Hassan denies that running the game with volunteers at grass-roots level means off-field activities are also "amateur".
"At a community level, local competent professional people who are sympathetic to the GAA often do administrative jobs, such as a local accountant becoming club treasurer."
However, there are issues the GAA has to address - the forthcoming loss of revenue from football and rugby games at Croke, the fall in gate receipts and the televising of GAA games.
In its annual report, the GAA said the loss of money generated by rugby and football internationals from 2010 onwards would leave "a big hole" in its finances.
Croke Park has been hosted rugby and football internationals since 2007
In total, the opening-up of Croke Park since 2007 has generated 18.7m euros for the GAA.
Rugby and football internationals are scheduled to return to Lansdowne Road after April 2009.
At present, the GAA is restricted to staging three non-GAA events a year at the stadium, but the association has indicated that it will ask for permission to host more money-spinners, such as concerts.
"It is ironic that the GAA says there is a hole in its revenues because of rugby and football leaving Croke Park, when previously they would have not wanted those sports played there," says Dr Hassan.
One solution may be to hold more concerts, business seminars and corporate events at the stadium.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, the number of televised games has increased, with satellite broadcaster Setanta, as well as station TV3, joining RTE in showing Gaelic football and hurling matches.
In the annual report, director general Paraic Duffy said the increased number of televised live matches could be responsible for the falling attendances.
He said: "We'll need to reflect on the proper balance between the benefits of live coverage of our games."
He added: "It may be that less games would ease some of the scheduling problems we faced in 2008, provide more options for counties in scheduling their club championship games and dilute the impact of live TV on attendances."
The 5.1m-euro fall in gate receipts was in National Leagues and All-Ireland series games, not the provincial championships.
Now the GAA is projecting that gate receipts are likely to be reduced by 10% in 2009.
Sean Moran, a sportswriter and Gaelic Games expert at the Irish Times newspaper in Dublin, says the fall in gate money is a worrying trend.
"The number of matches being screened on TV has shot up since the mid-1990s. There is a full programme of TV fixtures, but there are voices now beginning to question whether there has been too much on TV," he says.
"While it has certainly helped raise the money coming in from media sources, the proportion of gate receipts as a share of total income has slid.
The GAA faces challenges to its pre-eminence in Irish sport
"In the 1990s the gate money proportion of annual GAA revenues was 70%, a figure that was thought to be too high.
"Since then, the non-gate revenues have shot up and the proportion of gate receipts is down to 42%. That is quite a slippage over the years, which is only partly explained by the increase in revenue from other streams, such as sponsorship money.
"The GAA would be a bit concerned about these proportions."
Meanwhile, there is the challenge in attracting more people at a time of a global recession, with admission prices being frozen this year.
"Many people have predicted the demise of the GAA model, but it is actually getting stronger as a business," says Dr Hassan.
"The rise of Irish soccer and rugby have presented challenges, yet at every point the GAA has reacted to the challenges.
"There is no evidence to say that as a model it has to alter the way it conducts its business in order to retain its pre-eminence."