Getting Down to Business

Today was perhaps the most hectic day of my now nearly three week long course in managing in complex environments. There was not one, not two, but three business visits, each to very different sorts of businesses with quite different environments, structures, and goals. My favorite of these businesses, however, was Croke Park and the GAA.

The goals of the GAA intrigued me greatly. I am a huge sports fan, but when our tour guide informed us that representing his club was more important to him, and the majority of players, than winning, I was completely shocked. American sports have tended in the exact opposite direction: winning is what matters. Our greatest heroes are winners, and particularly, those who would do anything to win; Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll all come to mind. Furthermore, American sports care very little about representing where one is from; LeBron has left Cleveland twice for greener pastures, for example. All of this leads me to ask the question, why are the sporting environments of Ireland and the United States so different? Is it all a result of GAA’s efforts to emphasize that their sports are amateur leagues, while the states emphasize that their leagues are for professionals? Is there a broader cultural aspect of Ireland that makes them have greater respect for those who represent their home, rather than those who are simply aiming to win? There is certainly a strange parallelism between Irish nationalism and British colonial rule to be found in that question.

Regardless, I must say that this business model of promoting sports with the viewership and revenue levels of professional sports as amateur is an interesting one. Frankly, the GAA reminded me of a more ethical version of the NCAA. At least the GAA has a well-considered reason for why they rob their players blind, and at least they take care of their players in retirement. My attitudes on the (evil) NCAA aside, the GAA has essentially created a business model that insulates them from the complexity of their environment with a solid layer of revenue. By promoting sports of such magnitude as amateur, and therefore not having to pay players, and by remaining a non-franchise league, and therefore not having to pay clubs directly, the GAA give themselves a huge war chest to do whatever they want. They claim to invest heavily back into the sports, and while I am sure this is true, I also want to consider what they could hypothetically do if they chose not to invest back into the community, and the implications of their sports being seen as tradition in a nationalistic environment.

Firstly, let’s take a look at America, where ten years ago the NFL was seen as completely untouchable. While the league is still the largest in America, and still growing rapidly, it is seen now as far less than infallible. Now, stick with me: by the NFL labelling itself as the most professional league in world sports, it has painted itself as a league of elites, which as we all know, is a buzz word in American culture presently. As a result, the attack of the league on its anthem policies and protests come from a group on the right that call the players stuck-up elites who should respect the flag and a group on the left that call the owners stuck-up elites who should respect player rights. Could the NFL have foreseen that the geopolitical landscape of America would affect their business from 2016 onward? Doubtful, but that’s just part of managing in complex environments.

Now, back to Ireland, where I plainly do not think that this could ever happen because the GAA’s methods of promotion and the shared culture of the Irish both tend towards lowering the complexity of the Irish environment. With regards to their methods of promotion, the GAA was very explicit today in keeping with the theme that their athletes are teachers, construction workers, businessmen, average citizens. Not only does this insulate them from being labeled as elites in the event that their personal lives and opinions are under scrutiny, but it also helps create a sense of community with lower level amateur players who feel like they could one day be those great players; no one in their right mind, on the other hand, believes that they could one day join the NFL in their twenties. Moreover, the shared culture of the Irish helps tie this community even closer, making the GAA’s environment one of closeness, tied together with a bow of powerful national identity.

As far as revenues giving the GAA insulation from their environment, I want to briefly get back to the concept of being a non-franchised league. Suppose that the GAA decides, “we want to keep a larger amount of revenue; we are going to invest far less in clubs from now on.” There are no immediate ramifications for such a move, and as such, the GAA has a lot more room to move with regards to finance than the traditional, franchised American sports league, which usually involves some sort of contractual obligation between the league and franchise owners to share revenue. In other words, while consistently mismanaging money could give rise to competitors that would better serve Irish needs, the GAA has a lot more room to maneuver their finances than any American sports league does, insulating them from unexpected environmental variables.

The GAA is fundamentally different than American sports leagues, and they operate in a much different environment. While I do not fully understand either the GAA or the environment in which they operate, I do see a ton of merit in their system, which seemingly gives them several competitive advantages over any potential competitors.