Converting America (Part 6): Poc Fada fundraisers for hurling clubs

Since hurling clubs here in America are so small, so decidedly tucked away in the “niche” sport category, a lot of them have trouble paying field-use fees, gathering equipment and attracting the attention of non-players. Basically, they’re always short on cash.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Tipperary’s Brendan Cummins lets fly during the 2009 Martin Donnelly Poc Fada on Annverna Mountain. (INPHO via HoganStand.com)

Most try to scrape together money by hosting pub-crawls, soliciting donations at Irish heritage festivals or tapping sponsors, which are almost always Irish pubs.

Almost all of these efforts tie the game and its Irish roots with throwing back a few beers. For most, this is absolutely fine. For others, it’s an unfortunate reinforcement of the Irish stereotype — that of a pub-loving, drunken rabble-rouser.

If hurling wants to succeed in Puritanical America, it needs to rise above that. It doesn’t need to rise too far, mind you, because there’s plenty of beer-loving sports fans here in the U.S., but a even little separation from that stereotype is sure to help.

So here’s what I would suggest for the next hurling club fundraiser: A poc fada.

Now bear with me, because I bet a lot of American-born hurling players don’t know what a “poc fada” is.

Basically, it’s the hurling version of a homerun derby for baseball players — with a golfing twist.

In a poc fada, the players assemble at a given point and hit their sliotars as far as they possibly can. Then they advance ahead to where the ball landed and hit it again. The players are working their way to an end point about 3 miles away. They keep hitting their ball until they get there, and the player with the fewest strikes wins.

Players in the All-Ireland Poc Fada Championship can do this in 50 hits or so. Americans might be lucky if they can get it 80. Here’s a website dedicated to that event, which includes rules, results, photos and videos.

Still, this is the kind of activity even non-hurling players can get into — heck, they would probably even pay a fundraising fee to play. Consider this:

  • The skill set is minimal, so practically anyone can do it. (Maybe not well, but they can do it.)
  • Smashing the ball as far and as hard as you can is always the most satisfying part of the game. A poc fada boils hurling down to just that.
  • The rules are simple — hit it as few times as you can to reach the goal.
  • It provides a basic introduction to several key aspects of hurling — long and big hits, the ball and the hurley.
  • It sparks an interest in hurling.
  • People of all ages and athletic levels can participate.
  • It’s a day out in the country that isn’t a golf game. This is something different.

Here’s how you can set up a poc fada fundraiser:

  • THE LAND: Contact a local farmer, park administrator or Joe Average land owner and talk to them about the poc fada. Ideally, you’ll want to use a 50-yard-wide strip of land that goes over hill and dale and is relatively clear. It only needs to be mostly clear, because obstacles make a poc fada more fun. For farmland, the basic grazing pasture (and not cropland) is ideal.
  • RUN-THROUGH: Get some team-members to do a run through of the proposed course and figure out the average number of hits, the par, it takes to complete (this will be important). You should also look for potential hazards on the course — not golf-style hazards, but injury-inducing hazards — and clear them out.
  • THE DATE: There’s two schools of thought on this. Either have it on or near St. Patrick’s Day — to catch people when their Irish pride is the highest — or as far away from St. Patrick’s Day as possible — to intrigue non-Irish folks about gaelic sports.
  • FINANCES (FOR SKILLED PLAYERS): Your hurling club members (and anyone who’s good with a hurley) should take pledges from their friends, family and coworkers. Basically, they pledge to pay you more for the least number of hits by following this formula: (50 + the pre-determined course average) – (the player’s score) = The Pledge multipler. Example: Someone completes the 65-par poc fada in 52 hits (50+65-52=63), his supporters then pay him 63 times their pledge amount. So someone who pledged 25-cents now owes $15.75.
  • FINANCES (FOR THE PUBLIC): If the public wants to play, have them pay to play. I’d recommend that they pay $20 or so, include some refreshments and a giveaway item, such as a shirt or mug.
  • RECRUIT: Once you’ve got the fundraising rules down, the par established and pledge forms created, you need to go out and recruit some additional participants. First off, hit up local business people with Irish names, news broadcasters, celebrities, politicians, retired sports stars and maybe even current players from the local pro baseball team — this will help you get some publicity. After that, start circulating forms at local pubs (yeah, why not?), Roman Catholic churches and schools (lots of Irish folks there) and anywhere else you can think of to generate some interest. At the same time, hurling club members should be seeking out pledges of their own.
  • ADVERTISE: Once you’ve got a date and a location, start advertising the event. You don’t necessarily have to spend money to do so, just send a press releases to your local paper, television and radio stations. Print up some fliers and hand them out around town. Be sure to explain what a poc fada is, too.
  • LEGAL: If you play the poc fada on private land, you need to get some sort of waiver that exempts the landowner from liability for injury. This is absolutely necessary. Whether or not it’s on private land, you should also have a waiver that exempts the club from liability for injury. There are two likely injuries in a poc fada, someone gets hit by a sliotar or someone trips and hurts themself on rough terrain.
  • TRAIN: At the start of the poc fada, you should host a training session for all newcomers on how to hold the hurley, how to hit the ball and give them a few practice swings. If it’s apparent that novices aren’t going to hit as well as your regular members, you might want to consider a shorter course for them.
  • HELP: Don’t let all your hurling club members play in the poc fada, have a few work as ball-spotters (very important!), ombudsmen and on-the-course coaches. Their goal is to make sure the non-members have fun, learn the basics of a poc fada/hurling  and corral people who wander off the course. They should also keep a close watch on the equipment to make sure no one walks off with a hurl or sliotar.
  • PLAY: When the big day arrives, get out there early. Make sure the weather will be good, because if it’s not it will be miserable. Have someone in charge of all the side details — parking, refreshments, restrooms, form organizing, equipment quartermaster, fee collection, cleanup, boundary marking and so on. Once all that’s all good, get playing, have a good time and be proud you’ve further secured your club’s future.

Want to see an actual poc fada? Here’s a you tube video where they blast hits along a country road in Ireland.

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Converting America (Part 5): Steal the Wienermobile

Welcome to Part 5 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …

One of the biggest hurdles for hurling and gaelic football in the United States is that, quite frankly, very few Americans have ever heard of the games. They don’t know how they’re played. They don’t know the rules. Heck, they don’t even really know how to watch the games.

So the GAA, the international governing body for both sports, needs to address those problems by taking the games to Americans instead of expecting us to find them on our own.

First off, the GAA needs to hire some of their players coaches on a year-long contract. These guys and gals wouldn’t be paid to play the games, a no-no under GAA rules, but instead they would be public relations workers. Their job? To teach Americans to play and enjoy hurling and gaelic football.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The GAA needs a promotional tour, just like Oscar-Meyer does, but without the giant hot dog-shaped bus.

To do so GAA officials would next grab a map of the U.S., and plot out a course that takes their promotional effort to America’s largest Irish festivals, just like the world famous Wienermobile travels the world promoting hot dog maker Oscar-Meyer.  Luckily for the GAA, their bus wouldn’t look so darn goofy (though it might help) and Irish festivals don’t all happen on the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, they pretty much occur on scattered weekends from March through October.

From that list and map, the GAA will send out one or two buses full of players with the simple task of promoting their sports to anyone they come across. Naturally, people attending Irish festivals will be more receptive such things, so Irish festivals will be the backbone of the tour.

Arriving at the festival of the week, the players set up a tent and also plot out a playing field somewhere on the grounds. In their tents, the players talk up the sports, demonstrate some skills, show off the equipment and hand out free (or nominally priced) DVDs of games, documentaries and instructional segments.  All this schmoozing leads up to two games in the festival’s final hours. One game of hurling/camogie, and another of gaelic football.

In between all those Irish festivals, the promotional tour isn’t just sitting around either. Instead, the crew makes even more stops: At colleges, high schools, elementary schools and county fairs. They could even swing into Canada for a leg of the trip.

At each additional stop, they would once again set up the tent, hand out the DVDs, sell some merchandise, play a few games and, most importantly, get the word out about the gaelic games.

Now I’m no accounting wiz, but considering the current financial turmoil Ireland is at this point, I bet the GAA could easily find 100 qualified people ready and willing to set sail for America. Further, one year of this just isn’t going to be enough. Plan it for five years or so. That sort of timeframe would really help to saturate the entire U.S.

Sure the cost of staging such a promotional effort would be in the millions, but the long-term reward — both financially and simply expanding the international scope of the gaelic games — is exactly what hurling and gaelic football need.


Living St. Louis explores hurling

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Converting America (Part 4): Embrace the new media

Welcome to Part 4 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …

In America, and I would assume the rest of the world, the youth culture has whole-heartedly embraced technology. Whatever is new is what they want.

BIG CROWD: GAA games in Ireland regularly fill thousands of seats.

If the GAA, the international governing body of the Irish sports of hurling and gaelic football, wants to capture an American (and world-wide) audience, it must dive into these technologies and make their sports the sport of a new generation. The first step, of course, is to actually be available to that generation, and the GAA has clearly bungled that effort.

But all is certainly not lost. The GAA can turn things around in a matter of months if acts quickly, and here’s a game plan for them.

  • Build a feeder website – For most of the world, hurling and gaelic football are an oddity. In fact, it’s not too crazy to assume that most of the world has never even heard of either sport. The GAA needs to change that, and the best way is to build a multi-language “feeder” website that lays out the basics of the sports, without going crazy on the details. It should entail a snapshot of the sports’ history, a basic guide on their rules, some videos of each, a checklist of items you need to play and a simple storefront for basic supplies. Once you’ve got this, promote the heck out of it at Irish festivals, Irish bars, the Olympics, sporting events and anywhere else that seems appropriate.
  • Get a YouTube channel. Get a Twitter account. Get a Facebook page – I am still puzzled why the GAA doesn’t have (or at least doesn’t advertise) accounts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Each of these are vital to reaching out to the tech-savvy crowd. On YouTube, regularly post quality videos of match highlights. On Twitter, pump up big games and venues where Americans can see them. On Facebook, promote local clubs, highlight key matches, point out equipment suppliers and create a general push for hurling and gaelic football.
  • Freshen up the North American GAA site — Go on, take a look at the North American GAA site. It’s not a disaster or anything, but it certainly is boring. The site needs a new look, daily fresh content and be made to clearly promote its sports.

    ONE STEP BEYOND: The GAA app for iPhone looks great, but what about Android users? And how about something for those who play the sports instead of catering only to spectators?

    It also needs an updated guide on the clubs that are currently active. If the Irish GAA needs to take over the site, so be it. Once things get working right, it could hand it back to the North Americans.

  • Build a gaelic games app – (Updated from my initial entry) Smartphones and their so-called “app programs” are huge. The GAA desperately needs to reconsider the app they have available for their sports. It shouldn’t be a simple scoreboard program. It certainly  needs to provide scores, but it should also house player profiles, team histories, international activities, game rules, videos and coaching tips. Or better yet, make an app for each of those categories and for both sports. Frankly, the GAA needs to go a step further and help those trying to play their sports, not just an app for spectators. Additionally, the GAA needs an app for the other big platform — Android-brand phones.
  • PLAYSTATION 2 GAME: In 2007, Transmission Games published a hurling video game, which included an instructional DVD for real-life players.

  • Keep building video games – Back in 2007, a company called Transmission Games came out with a few video games: One featured hurling, two featured gaelic football, and I believe a fourth came out that combined the two gaelic games on one disc.  (There’s also a game advertised here, but I know of no other information on it.) Unfortunately, all the Transmission Games publications got terrible reviews and only worked on Region 2 Playstation 2 consoles.  Regardless of their initial reception, the GAA should subsidize the development of new games and make them available on a worldwide market. Sure, they won’t be big sellers, but their very existence might convince video game junkies to put down the controller and pick up a hurley. In this case, any recognition of your sport is good.
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Converting America (Part 3): Tap the Catholics

Welcome to Part 3 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

In Ireland, hurling and gaelic football are largely, though not exclusively, played by Catholics, and as the Gaelic Athletic Association works to expand in the United States, it needs to use this tie to its advantage, rather than play it down as it does in Ireland.

First off, it’s important to understand how the GAA was created. Way back in 1884, the organization was founded to preserve Irish sports and Irish culture. The (essential) reason that both came under threat was that the English rulers of Ireland were actively promoting English culture and, at its worst, actually outlawing various aspects of Irish culture. This attitude prevailed throughout much of the next century.

As the anti-English sentiment transformed into violence in the form of the Irish Republican Army, the GAA as an organization was even outlawed for a time. To further dampen interest in the sports, occupying British forces were banned by their own government from playing gaelic games. The animosity between the Irish and English was quite intense and resulted in riots, beatings, ambushes and vandalism, some of which were directed at GAA players, coaches or spectators. There’s several instances, for example, of vandals pouring broken glass on GAA playing fields to limit their use.

During this turbulent time, some actually considered the GAA a terrorist organization, or, at the very least, a front for a terrorist organization. Whether that is true is a case for historians to sort out, of course, but the English certainly saw strong connections.

Fast forward to modern times, and the GAA rightly and exclusively promotes itself as a cultural organization (which it has always been) and not a religious one (which it has never been). That’s a perfect position to maintain in Ireland, where the wounds of the era are still strong, but at the same time the GAA shouldn’t ignore the massive 68 million Catholic base in America, many of whom are struggling to find their cultural and ethnic identity.

Of those 68 million U.S. Catholics, a  substantial percentage can trace their heritage to Ireland, and those are the people that the GAA needs to reach out to and say: “Look at what your grandparents did back in the home country. This is a sport they played to build up their community, and you should play it too so you can be part of something too.”

Back to school: In particular, the GAA should create an educational program that highlights the organization’s history, the history of its sports and their historical (though not direct) association with the Catholicism. In Ireland, they already have youth outreach progams, so it’s not too big of an effort to brush it up for Americans.

But here’s the key: Once they have an Americanized program ready, the GAA should market it to America’s Catholic schools.  As of this writing, there are more than 7,000 private Catholic schools in the United States, and every one of them is going to eagerly embrace a game that was often used to champion the Catholic cause, even if their school isn’t entirely Irish Catholic.

Just consider this as a sample course of study, which could stretch over the years American kids spend in their local Catholic schools:

  • Athletics: Starting in the earliest grades, the GAA should provide equipment and instruction material to American Catholic schools. Hurling, in particular, is a game that takes many years to master, and teaching kindergarten and first-grade students is going to eventually build some excellent American players.
  • History: Starting with the gaelic games origins hundreds of years ago, following through to the founding of the GAA and its evolution into its modern form is actually fascinating reading. Layer that with the fact that the games’ players are professional in skill, but totally unpaid, is an amazing story of its own in a modern world where people are paid tens of millions of dollars because they can throw and catch a ball.
  • Politics & Geography: Along with the story of the Irish political situation that resulted in the creation of the GAA, there’s also another set of politics that comes into play on the field. Players for gaelic sports aren’t traded or lent out. They can only play for their home team. This results in heated rivalries between neighboring towns and counties, and a good lesson in geography for those interested.

Right now, Catholics in America are vehemently proud of their heritage. They celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with abandon. They flock to Irish festivals.  They have essentially claimed Columbus Day as their day.

Why not give America’s Catholics their own sport as well?

And once you do, the GAA might spark interest from America’s non-Catholics and non-Irish population.

When and if that happens, the gaelic games will truly go global.

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Converting America (Part 2): Think UFC

In the first part of “Converting America,” my series on how the Gaelic Athletic Association can bring its sports to the United States, I pointed out that Americans already watch or participate in a lot of sports.

EYE ON IRELAND: Getting Americans interested in gaelic sports will be tough, but a careful cultivation of the sports' image could help them break through to the mainstream.

There’s probably room for more, especially as other games wane in popularity. Just look at boxing. It was once one of America’s most popular sports, but now it barely registers in most Americans minds.

As boxing has suffered a precipitous drop in viewership (and a veritable extinction event in actual participants) similar sports have risen to replace it, namely the mixed martial arts phenomenon, which was essentially kick-started by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a sport that mixed drama, tough guys and cable TV into a ratings juggernaut.

The big finish: When the UFC started back in the early 1990s, it brought viewers right to the climax. They unloaded their big championship bouts year after year without worrying about how the fighters got to where they were.

The GAA needs to do the same. Show us the best of the sport and work backwards.

So, at the very least, the GAA needs to build some excitement for its championships here in the states. Give us at least a month of games as a lead into the finale. This will give us time to build up interest in the sport, from a spectator level and as a participatory event.

Get in the game: Just like the UFC did, the GAA needs to dive into America’s vast cable  network and find a channel that needs to fill some time.

That’s essentially what the UFC did with Spike TV. It saw a hole in Spike’s programming, and  built a package for the network.

That’s exactly what the GAA needs to do. Sure, ESPN is bloated beyond belief with American sports, so that’s out. But maybe offering a game or two each week to Versus or another smaller network could start to generate interest in the gaelic games.

These don’t have to be prime-time slots, leave that to the NHL, extreme sports and pro volleyball. Instead, offer up late-night airings where games of hurling and gaelic football can capture the interest of the bar and college crowd. The late afternoon time slots would intrigue high schoolers, and early morning broadcasts might tear a few jocks away from AM broadcasts of Sportscenter.

But the point is this: Get the games out there. Get America thinking about hurling and gaelic football.

The rules: This is an important one, so pay attention. These games that Versus (or some other network) are showing can’t be a direct feed from Ireland. They need to be modified for American audiences.

During the first year or so of broadcasts, you need to hammer us with the rules. Explain everything. Take nothing for granted.

You’ve also got to have an announcer who speaks “American.” I’m not saying he can’t have an accent, but he has to be one that Americans can tune into and not need a translator. Maybe have an Irish guy for the play-by-play, and an American for color commentary.

That’s how the UFC did it. They taught us the rules first and got us hooked.

Get real: Just like the UFC catapulted into mainstream America with its “Ultimate Fighter” show, the GAA could probably develop interest in its games with a reality show about their lives.

For those not completely aware, the athletes at the highest level of GAA competition are totally unpaid yet they train at professional levels in games that are intensely demanding both on and off the field.

On the field, they are often in front of a national audience that sees an event that’s easily on par with a Major League Baseball game in terms of production value.

Off the field, they juggle their regular lives, which includes earning a living in their chosen profession, while being hounded by fans and the media about their performance.

That, dear reader, would make some great reality television, and Americans would certainly love it.

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Converting America (Part 1): The football nation

In comments about a month ago, Sean Kelly, a former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association, explained his thoughts on how the organization needs to work on bring the games of hurling and gaelic football to the U.S.

TV COVERAGE: Sean Kelly, a former GAA leader, has some ideas about boosting gaelic games' image in the U.S.

To summarize, he suggests that the GAA:

  • Make games available for viewing in the U.S. free of charge.
  • Focus on teaching the game to kids.
  • Show U.S. adults how their heritage is tied to the sport.

I definitely agree on all points, but I also see that hurling and gaelic football are tough sell in the U.S.

(entry continues under video)

Most importantly, Americans only have so many sports they can  participate in or follow. American football is, without a doubt, the biggest game in the U.S. Between college games, the professionals and even the local high school season, most Americans are following the game from August through February.

Then layer baseball and basketball (probably the biggest sports in participation) on that busy schedule. Don’t forget NASCAR racing, ice hockey, golf and soccer too. Sprinkle in tennis, ice skating, gymnastics and a dozen other sports, and you’ve got a good picture of the American sports mindset.

So the GAA’s very first step is to get noticed. America certainly has a taste for niche sports, so all is not lost.

But how can it make this breakthrough? That very question is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and now I’m gonna share some of those ideas over the next few days, so stay tuned.

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