Leading Sport – Ciaran Gallagher

As part of our Leading Sport Series with PwC, Sport for Business caught up with Gymnastics Ireland CEO Ciaran Gallagher this week.

He has steered it across a rubicon of participation to a point where now it is challenging every other sport for the number one spot in what parents want their children to be involved in.

Gallagher is an impressive individual with a keen sense of the challenges and opportunities that he is facing.  We also touch on the impact of the new partnership with Nestlé Cereals, his role with the Olympic Council of Ireland and which global sports event he would want to be at, outside of his own, were the opportunity to arise.

Where is Gymnastics in the landscape of Irish Sport in 2018?

We are one of the largest Olympic sports in the country with membership now which is heading towards 30,000.

It’s on a great consistent growth trajectory with new clubs springing up and a demand from children and parents.

We are working on a Club development programme now to help in that area, where we can offer central advice to club owners on negotiating use of facilities and rents and helping with the administrative structure.

We also want to expand into a public-private partnership model where individuals are encouraged to establish their own facilities as a business and satisfy the demand which is out there.

This is already established in the UK and US and we have already had a lot of interesting conversations with business people from other sectors who have seen through their own engagement with the sport that there is a demand.

The growth in numbers has been very strong over the past two years. What have been the key drivers of that?

We did a very strong piece of research last year with Onside and that revealed a strong desire from parents to get their children involved in sport.  It was right up on a par with the traditional big three and actually ahead of one of them.

Awareness is also very high and not just among children.  There is a massive demand for adult as well as child engagement with the sport both from a spectator but also a general fitness point of view.

This has been helped by some recent celebrity endorsement as well with both Padraig Harrington and Brian O’Driscoll saying that Gymnastics was the number one sport that they wanted their kids to be involved with.  They are not driving demand but they are reflecting a surge in interest that it is our responsibility to cater for in the best way we can.

Our membership is really only a drop in the ocean of the potential so the main activity now is to develop the facilities and clubs, to work with local authorities and existing club owners to realise that potential.

Clubs like Douglas in Cork are expanding the footprint of what they have and are heading towards 2,000 members.  That puts them on a par with the biggest sporting clubs in the country.

You have role models coming through now to inspire the next generations, how important is competition vs participation?

Our strategic plan is spread wide across all areas.  There is an international love of the sport and we have really scored well with the many nationalities that make up modern Ireland.

We need to develop the sport but also the business model behind that.

We have created programmes that suit all areas.  Gym Start is for everyone, it is non-competitive and is really about movement and the basics of the sport.

You can then move onto The Floor which is a step up and more of a show, kind of like what you would see on Britain’s Got Talent and full of life and excitement.

The next stage is The National Series which is really still based at heart on participation but that is the area from which talented individuals can move more into our Elite path.

We are seeing the number of those competing at the highest level growing in size and quality.  Kieran Behan was the first, Ellis O’Leary also made it to Rio and we now have 300 young people that have been identified as having the potential to compete at an Olympic Games or World Championship level.

Rhys McClenaghan is performing at a higher level than any Irish gymnast has competed at before and he is training here alongside and in full view of those that will follow him.  That’s special and an important part of the pathway that young talented people can see.

You could not create that level of performance without the participation reach.

The National Indoor Arena is a great facility, could the success have been achieved without this?

No.  This has provided us with a base, a centre of opearations which caters for all of the disciplines and also has the back up of the Institute of Sport and the learnings from others who are here on campus.

It has also been argued that the Arena itself might not have made sense without your business approach as an anchor tenant?

We run 16 weekends of major participation events here, bringing people and revenue to the facility.

We were fighting this place for a long time and when the budget was not there we looked long and hard at how we could utilise it for mutual benefit.

We put a lot of effort into the events.  We brought over Clare Thompson, one of the Senior Event Managers at London 2012 to run our January event here.  To put it in context the 1,300 competitors we had on site would be a twice as big in terms of numbers and complexity than a World Championship.

With this facility could we envisage European and World Championships at some level coming to Dublin?

We have laid out in our strategic plan that we would establish Dublin and Ireland as a global base for Gymnastics and in some respects that has already been achieved.

We are being watched and tracked on a global level as a training facility and as a venue.  The A Championships around the world are held at venues like London’s O2 or Madison Square Garden but the next level is very much on our horizon for a signature event.

It would also be great to have a weekend in the year where we could take over somewhere like the Three Arena and put us on the map as a major sports event for the Irish public and the Gymnastics world.

An International Invitational where we set out to attract the best in the world and have them compete in the same venue and the same equipment as the best of our Irish talent.

In a darker area, how has recent negative publicity over abuse in the US impacted on you?

We are fully on top of all the legislation and good practice in relation to safeguarding children, and it is an area in which we are always conscious of our collective responsibility.

Membership as an adult is dependent on your being Garda vetted.  Our safeguarding is managed by Dermot Howlin who sits on the Sport Ireland Welfare Council.

Even when budgets were tighter it was an essential area to spend on making sure that it is right.

Moving to your personal engagement with the sport, where did that begin?

I think you could date it to when I jumped off a wall at the age of five.  My mum then threw me in a gym and from there I progressed from the kid who was bouncing around to competing at international level for Northern Ireland.

I studied English and Politics wanting to be a journalist but then I started voluntary work in event management. That moved towards paid work and then I was encouraged to apply for an 18-month contract developing a purpose-built facility for my own club in Lisburn.

As that came to an end I was asked to take on consultancy with Gymnastics Ireland and that turned into this role.  It was accidental in many ways but based on having a real passion for the sport.

So the Events background was an important part of your personal story, and the sports?

Our events programme now is a €500,000 annual project.  We outsource a lot of this, through rigging, event set up and promotion.  We could have as much of a logistical set up as for a U2 concert.

Everything we make beyond the cost is ploughed back into a ‘lights, camera, action’ approach to the events.

We split behind the field of play and back of house approach to all the events.  It’s fully serious and technical when it comes to the competition but we have a separate and equally important focus on making the experience one of a show that people will remember.

What are your personal ambitions over the next 12 months to get over the line.

Developing that events programme is a major priority.  That’s what can drive our growth and development across all other areas.

Last year we grew our overall turnover by €700,000 and only €40,000 of that was from public funding.  The balance was on commercial revenue through memberships and events.

The second thing is to continually grow our technical and performance programme to maintain the pathway that is being developed all the way to the highest level.  Tokyo is just around the corner and we are planning for Paris as well.

The third thing would be that we have just brought on board our first major commercial partnership with Nestlé.  It will be important to develop this and make it work in a way that is exciting and really beneficial for the sport and the brand.

You’ve played a key role in the ‘reboot’ of the Olympic Council of Ireland this year, what kind of a journey was that?

There was a group of us that had a real concern over how the whole OCI story had developed.  We knew that Sarah Keane had to go forward as President but she kind of called our bluff and said that she would if we would go for the Council as well.

She was right and it has been a very positive experience.

What has been achieved in the past year has been phenomenal and we are now in a place where the new CEO can come on board and make a real impact.

If I gave you a Golden Ticket to attend a sporting event outside your own what would that be?

Through my involvement with the OCI, I’ve grown close to our Winter Sports and the team that is out at the Winter Olympics.

I didn’t know much about it before but to go to a major Winter Event, perhaps an X games in Whistler or something like that would be special.

Thanks to Ciaran for taking the time out to sit with us and give an insight into the future of his sport.  There is no doubt it is a very bright one.

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