Calling time on its Guinness sponsorship can ultimately be good business for the GAA, writes Dermot Crowe

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AS expected, there were no reports of men levelling counties in one second flat, nor of mythological giants going hell for leather, when Antrim met Westmeath in the Leinster hurling championship last weekend. For the first time since the 1994 All-Ireland final, a senior hurling championship fixture did not feature Guinness as a major sponsor. The heyday of that relationship is well past but it still amounted to a significant milestone, the end of an era.

From the Sunday Independent

Dermot Crowe – May 12, 2013

What started out as a spectacular marketing drive – catchy slogans, giant billboards, clever television ads – gradually became more restrained and withdrawn. Since 2008 Guinness no longer had the stage to itself, sharing with two other sponsors, and now Liberty Insurance has arrived as a replacement. The change comes against the backdrop of a debate in the Oireachtas over alcohol sponsorship in sport. A review group has recommended that alcohol sponsorship be outlawed by 2016. The GAA is ahead of the game if this was an influencing factor.

Guinness will still have a role in the GAA; it hasn’t gone away. Swift came the announcement of a new agreement which sees the company billed a “proud partner” to the GAA and Croke Park Stadium. An accompanying press release statement talked of the “relationship” entering a third decade. The new “arrangement” would “provide opportunities for the GAA, Croke Park and Guinness to innovate together on new business and marketing collaborations”.

Speaking on Friday, Commercial and Croke Park Stadium director, Peter McKenna, reflected on Guinness’s input. “I think from our perspective, every marketing initiative has its time-span and 18 years is a long time-span. Guinness and ourselves have decided to move it into a slightly different direction; we still benefit a lot from their marketing expertise. The marketing department in Croke Park is myself and two others, the Guinness marketing department worldwide is probably 300 people, the kind of expertise and knowledge they can bring to us is huge.”

The Guinness brand had reduced impact since the GAA adopted a three-sponsor model in 2008, with Centra and Ethiad also coming on board. This eased concerns about the association of a major alcoholic drinks company and a sporting organisation which had been there from the outset. A notable dissenting voice was former GAA president Dr Mick Loftus who drew on his lengthy experience as a coroner in Mayo to highlight the impact of drink on people’s lives. In protest, he boycotted the All-Ireland hurling final since Guinness came on board though he relented last year, satisfied his protest had been made.

For a while, in the first few years as a sole sponsor of the hurling championship, Guinness reigned supreme and appeared to have sport marketing’s Midas touch. Its entrance had impeccable timing. Hurling, aesthetic and indigenous, did not have the broad reach of the masses enjoyed by Gaelic football. Then Clare obliged with a first All-Ireland win in 81 years. The following year Wexford found their winning groove for the first time since 1968. Limerick were pressing and pulling massive crowds. The game experienced a dramatic surge in popularity.

It was a golden age. Attendances shot up from a total of just under 290,000 in 1994, the year before Guinness came on board, to 543,000 five years later. The number of matches being shown live on television almost quadrupled. Conflicts arose from time to time. In 1999 Antrim’s sponsorship deal with Bushmills provoked some hostile exchanges. There were objections raised by health organisations but the sponsorship would run for 18 years, enjoying sole sponsor status for two thirds of that time.

The marriage of product and sponsor proved a triumph of compatibility and simple good fortune. “Guinness are a tremendous marketing company and what they achieved for hurling was phenomenal,” says Peter McKenna. “I think they dug right into the heart of the game – ‘land of giants‘ and ‘part of what we are’, they had really very creative and well-constructed campaigns.”

The initial deal was reputedly worth  £1m and lasted three years. In 1997 it was renewed for a further two years. The launch happened to be Joe McDonagh’s first official function to attend as new GAA president. “Guinness have shown creativity and flair which captured the ethos of the game and the imagination of the public,” he stated. Colin Storm, Guinness managing director in Ireland, said it was their intention setting out to “revitalise and market this wonderful sport”. Nobody objected if it sounded grandiose.

“I would like to think that we have been successful. The job is not, however, done and to that end we will continue to work closely with the association looking at how best to promote and market the sport. We will once again be committing major resources to advertising in 1997.”

In 1999 Cork won the first All-Ireland claimed by a traditional top three county since 1993. The revolution that had seen new counties emerge and shake up the competition had started to ebb. Still, Guinness happily announced a five-year extension of its sponsorship. Worth an estimated  £10m, when completed it would round off 10 years of unbroken sponsorship by the company.

Concerns about excessive drinking in Irish society invariably turned the spotlight on the Guinness and GAA alliance. A GAA task force on alcohol and substance abuse established by former GAA president Seán Kelly recommended in 2004, in the aftermath of a new two-year extension to the Guinness deal, that the Association should “ultimately phase out this form of sponsorship”. The report recommended a comprehensive education programme on drugs and alcohol with an emphasis on young members. It also sought the creation of a code of conduct for the serving of alcohol in clubs and at GAA functions and the development of guidelines in relation to advertising or sponsorship involving the drinks industry.

The GAA’s alcohol and substance abuse prevention programme (ASAP) was set up in 2006 arising from the task force’s report. It is a joint initiative with the HSE aimed at minimising the harm caused by the misuse of alcohol and other substances. Seven years on there are around 1,400 ASAP officers working throughout the country, with over 700 clubs having adopted a drug and alcohol policy.

Even when undertaking its ASAP programme in 2006, the GAA was on the receiving end of criticism for retaining its Guinness sponsorship into the next year. The decision to renew sponsorship was “a betrayal of all those who have deep misgivings about the Association accepting drink sponsorship” said Dr Joe Barry, a former Irish Medical Organisation president. “It makes a mockery of the GAA’s expressed concern about alcohol-related harm. The GAA is our largest and most influential sporting and cultural organisation. It is, therefore, doubly disappointing that alternative sponsorship could not be found.”

The same year Tyrone secretary Dominic McCaughey also criticised a lack of urgency by the GAA in phasing out alcohol sponsorship, and not acting on a recommendation of its own internal task force.

“It is almost impossible for clubs and counties to take action on this front, when there would appear to be a reluctance, at national level, to take any remedial action as recommended,” McCaughey told the Tyrone GAA Convention in 2006. “Faced with the ever-increasing problems associated with substance and alcohol abuse across the entire nation, the reasons or arguments put forward for inactivity by our Association do not stand up to scrutiny.

“Solutions to our problems are not going to be handed down from some government department or high office but from within our own clubs and communities. The GAA clubs, with their many sporting heroes, are one of the last units of Irish society that are still in a position to provide leadership, along with good example of healthy lifestyles, to the young people who have become so disillusioned.”

GAA director general Paraic Duffy told an Oireachtas committee recently that the GAA is not dependent on sponsorship from the alcohol industry. Guinness’s departure leaves them without an alcohol sponsor at national level, and no county team has an alcohol sponsor. The situation at club level is different where there can be a heavier reliance on local pubs for financial support.

“Sponsorship is hugely important for clubs at that level,” Duffy said. “It is important the impression is not given that alcohol is the problem. Often the local bar is the centre of the community and sponsorship by a bar of a local GAA club is part of a community initiative and no more. At local level, a number of our clubs receive sponsorship from hotels or bars.”

Duffy challenged the claim that alcohol sponsorship in sport leads to excessive drinking. “The elimination of alcohol sponsorship from sport will deliver no real benefits. It will simply increase financial pressures on sporting bodies and their clubs. We firmly believe the solution lies in a renewed focus on educating our population to adopt more positive attitudes to the use of alcohol and legislation to make access to alcohol more difficult and expensive for young people. The GAA will continue to be proactive in educating our members on the use of alcohol. The support of Government for that policy will be far more effective than the imposition of any ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport.”

Peter McKenna expects a curtailment of sponsorship in the years ahead. “I think we need to be very careful in the pace of that and the manner of that. I think there are other issues that contribute to difficulties caused by alcohol within society, the unit price, and discount selling doesn’t help. That encourages a certain culture of stack them high and so on. If sponsorship was to be removed what happens with the Jameson film festival for example? There are so many events that benefit from drink sponsorship. And who replaces them?”

Rugby and soccer are more likely to be impacted by any legislation to ban alcohol drinks sponsorship than the GAA. President Liam O’Neill believes that even at club level a ban would not be catastrophic. “The amount is not substantial, usually it is a set of jerseys and from my experience going around clubs many are wearing their own gear. It might be hard in some cases but it would not be an insurmountable problem if a ban had to be introduced.”

The former Leitrim footballer Colin O’Regan is national co-ordinator of ASAP. He is planning to have an officer and a policy on prevention in every club in the country by 2015. As for possible sponsorship restrictions relating to alcohol, the GAA looks able to cope if that day materialises.