Ireland's gaelic football final: playing for glory, but not a paycheck

On Sunday, Ireland's attention will be focused on the final match of its most popular sport, gaelic football. But not one of the men on the field will earn wages for playing – it's all amateur.

Tomorrow, 80,000 people will pile into a sports stadium in Dublin to watch the annual culmination of the national football league. But regardless of which team wins, one thing is certain: Neither will get paid.

Despite being Ireland's most popular sport, gaelic football remains a completely amateur affair. So when County Donegal plays County Mayo in the annual All-Ireland Football Championship on September 23 at Dublin's Croke Park, it will be purely for glory and the Sam Maguire Cup.

Gaelic football's amateur status is the lifeblood of the sport and – according to its organizing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association – the country.

It certainly marks the sport out in a world where multimillion dollar contracts, corporate sponsorship, and battles for broadcast rights dominate the landscape of most spectator sports. Amateur sports tend to be either underfunded minority games or the preserve of the super-rich.

Not so in Ireland. The GAA, which was founded in 1884 to codify and promote native Irish competitions, oversees several amateur sports, including hurling (the fastest field-game in the world) and handball.

And its biggest success has been gaelic football. The sport is not only entirely amateur, organized on a parish, and, at top level, county basis, but also the most popular game in the country. At the time of writing, tickets to the game are on sale on eBay for €1,220 ($1,600).

"I'm ecstatic. I can't wait," says Jordan Cunningham, a fan from the village of Glencolumbkille in County Donegal with tickets to the final.

Mr. Cunningham is a student at Dublin City University and, like many gaelic football fans, plays the sport himself. "At the minute it's all work, so I miss a lot of training but if the opportunity to play for the county came up, I'd grab it with both hands."

Love of the game runs in the family. His father, Martin, is equally enthusiastic. "I've followed football since I was a child, and played it since I was 12," he says. "It's unbelievable Donegal making it to the final. It's lifted everyone so much," he says.

Amateur hour?

Controversial but popular Irish broadcaster and sports pundit George Hook questions whether the GAA sports can truly be considered amateur, however, noting paid coaches and sponsorship deals for players.

"It's not strictly speaking amateur. It's been an open secret that they've been paying the managers a lot of money. Then you've the GPA [Gaelic Players' Association] – why do you need a trade union if it's an amateur sport?" It's only truly amateur at the lower level, says Mr. Hook, a noted rugby fan and former coach to the US national rugby team.

But the Gaelic Players' Association, founded in 1999 to give voice to players, says there is no desire for the game to go any more professional than it is now.

"When we got down to asking what the players what they wanted, they didn't want full professionalism," says the GPA's Sean Potts. "They wanted recognition and support: career development, [college] scholarships and so on."

In fact, Mr. Potts says, professionalism simply couldn't work in a country with a population of just six million and a team in each of the 32 counties: "There are 2,500 county players and each is entitled to support through the Player Development Program. If it was professional, the wages would be so small [that] you'd be doing the players a disservice."

Hook notes that the end of amateur status can be damaging, arguing rugby's going pro in recent years has hurt the game at grassroots level and made Irish rugby financially unsustainable in the long term.

But despite admiring gaelic games, Hook also poses a difficult question for Irish sporting fans: Does excelling at sports no one else plays mean the country is hobbled on athletics' international stage?

"We'd win as many Olympic medals as New Zealand, except for the GAA. The GAA siphons off enormous amounts of talent for sports that have no world recognition," he says.

Irish in America?

Potts acknowledges the game will remain of interest primarily to the Irish, but says there is a market overseas, particularly in the US.

"The international broadcast rights are up for grabs next year. We're trying to make the case to make it more broadly available, particularly on the East Coast of the United States so you don't have to go to an Irish bar to watch it," he says.

Potts says this could lead to growth, including attendances of 15 to 20,000 for exhibition games. It wouldn't be entirely new to America, either. The 1947 All-Ireland final was held in that most Irish of cities… New York.

Whatever about New York, Jordan Cunningham's sights remain closer to home this weekend. Only Donegal's second time in the final, Cunningham says excitement is always non-stop with the game.

"I follow Manchester United but [gaelic] football is a better game than soccer; it's faster and more physical. You're always on the edge of your seat."

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