Big move for Cork GAA with Sports Direct deal

Eanna O’Reilly

The recent announcement of a new sponsorship deal for Cork GAA with UK company Sports Direct, worth two million euro over the next five years, was very positive from a financial point of view. In recent years, the Cork county board have fallen into financial difficulties, with the debt incurred by the rebuilding of Páirc Uí Chaoimh ending up being a major weight around their neck. The loss of finance from gate receipts in 2020, as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, was a major blow to all counties, but Cork most especially. It resulted in Croke Park having to step in to give financial assistance to the Cork county board, in order for the running of Gaelic games in the county to not be adversely affected.

The new Páirc Uí Chaoimh was opened in 2017.
The new Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium
Pic credit: INPHO/James Crombie

Of course, Cork have had their problems on the pitch as well, with both senior teams in hurling and football consistently underachieving in recent years. The Cork hurlers remarkably haven’t won an All-Ireland title for 15 years, while the footballers, having played in division 3 of the national league, went on to suffer a loss to Tipperary in this year’s Munster final.   

Against this backdrop, the securing of a very lucrative sponsorship deal with Sports Direct was a hugely positive development for Cork GAA. The deal shows the continued attraction of the famous red and white jersey, as one of the most marketable sports jerseys in the country. It is a hugely welcome development for the county’s finances, with a reported 400,000 euro a year. The deal also includes a winning bonus for the county, should either the hurlers or footballers win an All-Ireland. The Sports Direct partnership should significantly relieve the pressure on the Cork county board.

Cork Retail Park HE | SportsDirect.com
The Sports Direct store in Blackpool shopping center, Cork

Sports Direct are a sports equipment company based in the UK, owned by English businessman Mike Ashley. The billionaire has a high profile in the UK, as a result of his ownership of Newcastle United FC. Ashley purchased the premier league club in 2007 and was visible in the stadium at most matches for the first few years of his ownership. Over the years however, the club’s fans grew to dislike Ashley, as a result of his lack of investment in the club. Ultimately, Newcastle United failed to become a major club with title ambitions since Ashley became to owner, while they were twice relegated from the premier league. He resigned from the board of directors in 2015 and last year, announced his intention to sell the club.

In recent years, Ashley’s running of Sports Direct has run into major controversy. Workers in various Sports Direct stores around the UK have reported severe mistreatment. In 2016, a report was published after a parliamentary committee investigation, which contained accounts from numerous employees. MPs in the House of Commons declared the business as being like a ‘Victorian Workhouse’, such was the treatment of employees by Ashley’s company. Ashley was forced to admit that Sports Direct had failed to pay the minimum wage to many of its staff over the years. After the report was published in July 2016, Ashley refused to appear for questioning before the MPs in London.

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley responds to criticism from MP Chi Onwurah |  Football | The Guardian
Sports Direct owner, Mike Ashley

Judging by the social media response to the Cork sponsorship deal, there are certainly mixed views on the new partnership between the controversial English businessman and Cork GAA. Some Cork supporters are against the GAA in the county associating themselves with Ashley and Sports Direct. Some supporters have stated that they will refuse to buy the new jersey, due to Ashley’s record on the treatment of his employees and his business approach in general.

Last year, Ashley was involved in an attempted business deal with a Saudi Arabian consortium, to potentially sell Newcastle United. The consortium contained businessmen and national officials with appalling records of human rights abuses within Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the deal fell through last summer. It remains to be seen if the majority of Cork supporters will be comfortable with the Sports Direct logo on the front of the famous red and white jersey. The financial side of the deal is undoubtedly of huge value to Cork GAA. Whether or not the majority of GAA fans in the rebel county agree with the partnership, is something time will tell in 2021.

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