Rebel Tea Party: Thirty years on from the Cork’s first jersey sponsorship

Last week, Cork GAA announced that they would be partnering up with Sports Direct, in a deal which will see the name of Mike Ashley’s controversial sportswear company splashed across the inter-county shirts for the next five years. The deal, which was announced to fervent protestations due in no small part to Ashley’s nefarious business practices, is but the latest example of how the trappings of commercialism and what many would regard as the abandonment of founding virtues has become ensconced in the framework of the GAA. While Cork’s most recent sponsorship deal remains the second most lucrative in the GAA, it is still thought to be less than half of what Dublin receive annually from insurance giants AIG. Thirty years ago however, long before the Dubs became the commercial juggernaut to which all competing counties must seemingly aspire, the Rebels announced themselves as the early frontrunners, as the GAA emerged from the Dark Ages and took its first tentative steps into the bountiful waters of jersey sponsorship.

By the early ’90’s, the GAA was at a crossroads, unsure whether to follow the gold-laden path of sponsorship or remain steadfast on the ever-narrowing trail of amateur idealism. This crisis of identity was only intensified by the unprecedented success of the Irish soccer teams at Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, which had temporarily removed Gaelic Games to the periphery of the nation’s sporting consciousness. The rise in popularity of the ‘garrison game’ was regarded in certain circles as an existential threat to the very existence of the organisation. On the same day that Ireland played out a miserable scoreless draw with Egypt, a mere 17,436 loyal patrons passed through the turnstiles to watch D.J. Carey and Brian Whelahan make their intercounty debuts in the semi-final of the Leinster Hurling Championship. The GAA was no longer the only games in town. Romantic Ireland was dead and gone and to the chagrin of traditionalists, one of its foremost pillars was forced to react accordingly.

In April of 1991, debate surrounding jersey sponsorship became the central theme of the GAA’s Annual Congress. Motions put forward by both the Dunsany club in Meath and the Crumlin club in Dublin proposed that Rule 14 be altered to allow for sponsored logos to be displayed on playing gear. “The GAA are being left behind in this respect”, argued one such advocate of the rule change, “sponsors need value for money and this is one sure way they get it”. Ironically, despite the position of Cork to benefit greatly from the relaxation of the sponsorship ruling, having claimed an historic Double the year previously, county secretary Frank Murphy vehemently opposed the motion, positing that its benefits would be limited to half a dozen counties at most and would exacerbate an already existing chasm between the elite counties and the rest. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that he wasn’t wrong.

Either way, the motion was not expected to get through Congress and was it not for a calamitous Fr. Ted-like mix-up on behalf of one county representative, those predictions would have come to pass. With a two-thirds majority required, 97 votes against would have seen the motion defeated. One delegate present, from a county opposing the rule change, mistakenly used his lunch ticket to indicate his vote and thus, it was deemed invalid. The motion was passed, 194 to 96, the incongruous meal voucher ultimately proving decisive. For the first time in the 105-year history of the All-Ireland Championships, the competing teams would take the field in shirts advertising everything from chips (in the case of Donegal) to non-alcoholic beer (in the case of Wexford).

Donegal (left) and Wexford’s (right) first sponsored jerseys

That June, two weeks after the Cork hurlers had defeated Waterford in the opening round of the Munster Championship wearing standard, sponsorless jerseys, a deal was announced with local tea-brewers Barry’s Tea, which since the mid-80’s, had become somewhat of a national brand. The one-year deal to the tune of £60,000 – four times what Kerry GAA received from their initial one-year deal with Kerry Group and almost twice what Dublin netted per annum from their inaugural deal with Arnott’s – meant that Cork GAA became by far the biggest beneficiaries of the new ruling. At a time when the development cost of Flower Lodge, now Páirc Úi Rinn, amounted to over £1.2million, it was an unexpected but much needed windfall.

Cork’s new commercial partners even promised to throw an extra £10,000 into the kitty, should either of the reigning All-Ireland winning teams manage to return to the final. Despite these incentives however, it is fair to say that Barry’s Tea didn’t initially get bang for their buck. While the four-game epic between the Arnott’s emblazoned Dubs and the O’Reilly Transport adorned Meath gripped the nation and reclaimed the sporting summer from Jack’s Army, Cork’s hurlers and footballers managed a mere three games between them in their new gear. The hurlers exited the championship after a Munster final defeat to Tipperary while the footballers title defence came to the most premature of ends against Kerry. The uninspiring performances of ’91 notwithstanding however, Barry’s Tea continued their support into the following season, with a sum of £50,000 guaranteed, rising to £90,000 dependent on the progress of the teams. The increased benevolence owed much to new regulations pertaining to the allowable size of the sponsors names and logos, with restrictions on the size of lettering increasing from 100 to 200 sq. cm’s. Jersey sponsors, which had been almost ineligible the year before, now became the most prominent features (see below).

1991 (left) & 1992 (right) Cork strips Source:

Of that sum, a minimum of £25,000 was earmarked for the player’s holiday fund, an aspect of the deal that re-opened a Pandora’s Box in relation to perceived professionalism in the same manner that Kerry’s sponsorship deals with Adidas and Bendix washing machines had in the early 80’s. Frank Murphy, by that time already renowned for his familiarity with the intricacies of the GAA rulebook, rejected suggestions that the holiday fund aspect of the deal was in contravention of the organisation’s amateur ethos, steadfastly claiming that the agreement had been sanctioned by Central Council and that “once no individual benefits from the fund on an individual basis, there is no breach of the rule”. The insistence by sponsors that a portion of their funds be allocated towards a player’s holiday soon became commonplace in other counties.

In June 1994, after three relatively successful one-year deals, Barry’s Tea entered into a three-year sponsorship deal. It would also be their last. Since the inception of the partnership in ’91, Cork teams had won provincial honours and reached Senior All-Ireland finals in both codes (’92 – hurling, ’93 – football). More importantly from a marketing point of view, 31 games involving Cork teams had appeared on television, 12 of them live. Continued success was expected and although the footballers kept their end of the bargain to a certain degree, claiming Munster titles in ’94 and ’95, the hurlers regressed to such an extent that over the three-year period that followed, one facile championship victory over Kerry was all they could muster.

After the denouement of the 1997 season, in which both the hurlers and footballers fell at the first hurdle to Clare, Barry’s Tea ended their six-year partnership with Cork GAA, over which time the company had poured over £400,000 into the County Board coffers and blazed a trail in how such funds should be apportioned. Unfortunately for them, having come on board in the wake of the momentous Double, their arrival coincided with a deterioration in GAA fortunes on Leeside. A few months after the iconic jersey was laid to rest, the U21 hurlers took to the field to play Galway in an All-Ireland final, sporting nothing but the county name as gaeilge on their chests (see below). They won well, and in doing so, ignited the spark that set about a hurling renaissance. When Mark Landers welcomed Liam back to Leeside two years later, the tea party was well and truly over and in its stead, it was Denis O’Brien’s fledgling telecommunications company that took pride of place on Cork’s rain-sapped jerseys.

It ended with Cork with a bit of drama and I never wanted to do things that  way'
The Cork U21 hurlers before the All-Ireland final against Galway. They won well, on a scoreline of 3-11 to 0-13.

Trendsetters though they may have been, Barry’s Tea were undoubtedly victims of unfortunate timing, their relatively fruitless stint as sponsors sandwiched between two of the county’s most celebrated successes. As such, to non tea-drinkers at least, their name will forever be synonymous with some of the bleakest days in the recent history of Cork GAA.

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