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Killarney hoopers ready for long-awaited tip-off

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by Adam Moynihan

After a frustrating year-and-a-half of inactivity due to COVID-19, Killarney’s two Men’s National League teams will finally take to the floor this weekend as the race for the 2021/22 Division 1 title gets underway across the country.

While other sports have gone ahead intermittently in 2020 and 2021, and most have been back in full swing for a number of months now, basketballers in Ireland have been forced to sit on the sidelines throughout the pandemic. This has been due to stricter guidelines when it comes to indoor activities but with those restrictions now (hopefully) a thing of the past, it’s time to play some ball.

It promises to be a very interesting season indeed for Killarney basketball fans, who now have two teams to follow at National League level. It is a remarkable turn of events considering the fact that in the not too distant past we had no teams at all competing at this grade.

More learned observers than this journalist have questioned whether or not a town of Killarney’s size can maintain two National League teams. Well, readers, we’re about to find out.

COUGARS

Let’s start with the new kids on the block.

We say “new” but in reality many of the Killarney Cougars players will be very familiar to local basketball supporters, and even more familiar to their crosstown rivals. Mark Greene, Justin Tuason, Andy Fitzgerald and other squad members have previously represented the Lakers in the National League, a fact that is sure to add some extra spice to the December 30 fixture between the two town clubs.

The 2020/21 campaign was meant to be the Cougars’ first at national level but COVID put paid to those plans. Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser this week, Greene said he and his teammates can’t wait to get out on the court.

“We’re very excited to finally get going,” the Killarney native said. “We had a long time off the court – I think we had around four weeks of proper training last year – so it’s great that the new season is starting now on Saturday.”

Basketball seemed to take a back seat in the public discourse around the resumption of sporting activities but Greene is not surprised. Like other Irish basketball players, he has grown accustomed to his chosen sport playing second fiddle to the big-hitters.

“We all know that soccer and the GAA are going to take precedent. They’re more professional and more popular in this country, and they’re outdoor as well which helps with the COVID restrictions. With the nature of basketball being indoors and close contact, it’s always going to be bottom of the pile. Especially, as I said, with the popularity of it as well. It hasn’t been too frustrating from that point of view because it was to be expected.”

Under the guidance of experienced head coach Ignas Sijanas, the Cougars, who will play their home games in the Pres Gym, have assembled a decent-looking squad. It’s one that Greene feels is capable of being competitive at the second highest level of Irish basketball, although he is still hopeful that they can bring in a couple more players to bolster their roster.

“We’d probably want one or two more bodies,” he admitted. “We have four or five guys on the fringes, we don’t know if they’re coming with us or not, and we could do with one or two of them to get a nice rotation going. But we’re not too bad. We’ll be competitive anyway.

“Mark O’Shea is after joining from Ballincollig, he’s looking very good. Conor Flynn has joined from Killorglin. Con O’Mahony is coming in from Farranfore, we’re expecting good minutes from him. Billy Wiseman is there to give Andy a break. And Jack Lynch is looking like a promising young player as well.

“We want to see if this project can work: building a solid foundation with local players, not being heavily reliant on imports.

"Let’s see if we can get some good results, be competitive and maybe that fourth spot (the final qualification spot from the southern conference) won’t be a million miles away. I think UL, Mathews and Demons look like shoo-ins on paper anyway, so I think that fourth spot could be between ourselves, Paul’s (Lakers), Portlaoise… That could be in the sights.”

The Cougars get their season up and running by welcoming one of those top teams, the UCC Demons, to the Pres Gym on Saturday. Tip-off: 7.30pm.

LAKERS

Although they are now facing into their fourth season back in the big leagues, the Scotts Lakers are also heading into uncharted waters. They have a new coach in Jarlath Lee and a young roster that is virtually unrecognisable from the last time they took to the court for an official game.

That being said, they certainly have plenty of talent at their disposal. Local lads Mark O’Shea and Dylan O’Sullivan will be joined by former St Paul’s Super League player Dainius Varanauskas, 6’5” Bulgarian Emilian Grudov, and Canadian point guard Ben Miller, who has returned to the club having initially signed up for the abandoned 2020/21 season.

Miller says the initial set-back of missing out on his first season in Irish basketball due to COVID was a “little frustrating”, but he is now ready to lead the Lakers to a run at the playoffs.

“I think our goal is to be at the top of the league, or at least in the top couple of spots. I know we’re a bit younger (as a squad), but I think that will be a realistic goal for us.

“We’re filling in some pieces now and adding a bit more depth. The squad is shaping up pretty well. Our young players have a lot of talent and a lot of potential. They’re really willing to learn and work at the game; it’s been fun meeting them and trying to teach them a thing or two.”

Miller will be the team’s primary ball carrier and he hopes he can use all his experience to propel the Lakers to a successful season.

“I hope to be a steady, consistent player who shares the ball with everyone and does what it takes to get wins.”

This year the Lakers will return to the Killarney Sports and Leisure Centre with their first home game coming on November 13 against UCC Demons. The side’s opening fixture sees them take on the Limerick Celtics away on Saturday.

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BREAKING: Kerry FC respond to criticism of season ticket prices

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by Adam Moynihan

Kerry FC have responded to online criticism of the price of their 2023 seated season tickets, highlighting the availability of “other options” for supporters of the League of Ireland’s newest club.

Season tickets for the Main Stand at Mounthawk Park went on sale this morning at a price of €275. LOI fans were quick to point out that this is the most expensive season ticket in the First Division, with a number of rival clubs charging less than €200.

In a statement released to the Killarney Advertiser, Kerry FC said that pricing structures were “examined for a long time” in the build-up to their season ticket launch.

“It’s worth noting that the €275 season ticket guarantees your assigned seat for every home league game in the 2023 season in a covered stand on the long side of the pitch,” the club explained.

“If supporters would prefer, there are plenty of other season ticket options, including a terrace ticket for general admission at a price of €200.

“Family tickets ensure children can attend our games at a minimal cost while Students/OAPs receive a significant discount on their yearly ticket.”

Over 100 Main Stand season tickets were sold within an hour of going on sale at 9am today.

The 2023 League of Ireland season will get underway in February.

Kerry FC season tickets can be purchased here.

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How ‘box office’ duo Clifford and O’Shea pushed Kerry’s brand into overdrive

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Adam Moynihan caught up with Kerry GAA Store manager Luke Quinn to find out how the Killarney-based business made record profits in 2022

It was a sad day for the parish when Killarney’s famous Nike Factory Store closed its doors in March of this year. That big, white Swoosh had attracted locals and visitors to the Killarney Outlet Centre since both the store and the centre first opened in 1999. Having a brand that large in a town so small was pretty cool. We were all sorry to see it go.

It wasn’t the only sports brand to call the Outlet Centre home, though. As Nike shut up shop, just across the way, on the other side of the escalator, the Kerry GAA Store was gearing up for what would turn out to be their best year ever.

The official retail outlet of Kerry GAA racked up €200,000 in profits in the financial year up to November. Not quite Nike numbers – the US sportswear giant made €21 billion globally – but the store’s record revenue certainly came as a welcome bonus for the county board.

Preparing intercounty teams has become hugely expensive (Kerry spent almost €1.5 million on their footballers and hurlers in 2022) and plans are in place to redevelop the Fitzgerald Stadium at an estimated cost of €72 million. Every cent counts.

The unprecedented success of the business is also a sure sign that the Kerry brand, which has been developing in one way or another for over 100 years, has now slipped into overdrive.

I recently called into the Kerry GAA Store to speak to manager Luke Quinn and find out more.

OFFICE

After selling a half-zip tracksuit top to a customer and handing over to his assistant, Luke invites me into a narrow office down the back. Myself and Luke actually know each other a long time. As kids we were neighbours down in Whitebridge Manor. I recall borrowing his Schmeichel-era Man United keeper jersey once so I could play in goal. It wasn’t the last jersey he gave me (although, in fairness, these days I pay).

A popular figure at his club, Dr Crokes, Luke experienced great success as a player and he is currently part of Brian McMahon’s senior management team. After chatting a bit about football, we get down to business.

I get the impression that I’m embarrassing him somewhat when I ask for the official amount that the store handed over to the county board, but he readily admits that he is delighted with the 12 months he and his team have put down.

“I think with the new jersey being released, and with Kerry reaching and winning the All-Ireland final, all those things combined and led to a very profitable year,” Quinn says.

“Any time you bring out a jersey, especially a home jersey, it gains traction – not alone in Kerry but all over the world.”

The popularity of that new O’Neills home jersey is an interesting one because it actually received quite a poor reception when it was unveiled in January. For his part, Quinn attributes that initial reaction to the imagery that accompanied the release. The sublimated background graphics on the body of the shirt were exaggerated in the launch photos, which made it look far louder than it actually was in real life.

“When people saw it in reality and when the team wore it, sales went through the roof. I remember the first weekend they wore it on TV against Kildare, the jersey gained unbelievable traction. I think people’s minds were changed.

“I know that O’Neills were very confident that it was going to sell well and, to be honest, we were as well. It’s like anything when it’s new, it takes a bit of time to seep in.

“I think the return of white trim was a factor. The bit of white just makes everything pop. It’s subtle enough but it makes a huge difference; it makes the green and gold more prominent.”

Perhaps even more significant than the design of the jersey itself was the talent wearing it. Kerry ended their eight-year drought by defeating Galway in the All-Ireland final in July with Man of the Match and Footballer of the Year David Clifford to the fore. At just 23 years of age, Clifford is now the sport’s standout superstar and Quinn says that he and semi-final hero Seán O’Shea are now driving the Kerry brand on a national and global level.

“Kerry is a worldwide brand at this stage. It’s a known brand and it’s not only Kerry people who want to buy the shirt, it’s people in the midlands, up the north, all over the world really.

“This Kerry team is relatively young and they’re after building a nice relationship with the public. The more you win, the more you’re going to be in the news and the media and the likes of David Clifford and Seánie and these guys, they’re box office now. The boys really do give [the brand] that extra push.

“It’s very hard to quantify but one thing you’d notice is that this year we had parents coming in who might have no interest in the GAA, in particular foreign nationals from places like Eastern Europe, and they had kids who were mad to get the jersey. They would actually point to the photos of David and Seánie and say they wanted the jerseys that those guys wear.

“You can’t really put a figure on it but you can see that these players are reaching out to a large audience because of who they are. At this stage, if they wore a black plastic bag, the kids would want a black plastic bag.”

The GAA is different to sports like soccer in that players don’t have squad numbers or their names printed on the backs of their shirts. If the GAA went down that road, Quinn has no doubt about which jersey would be the most popular.

“You’d just be stocking up on Clifford jerseys, wouldn’t you?” he laughs. “I’ve heard squad numbers being mooted but intercounty GAA is so different. The panels change so often, especially the higher numbers. Kerry could have 40 different players training with them throughout the year so it would be hard to nail down numbers.

“We possibly will bring out a number 14 and a number 11 shirt ourselves (Clifford and O’Shea’s usual numbers). Maybe a number 8 too. The more prominent ones. There is a demand for that. But as for names on the back, that might be a bridge too far.”

Aside from the jerseys, many items from Kerry’s leisure and training wear collections are also big sellers. The store receives four ranges from O’Neills every year, two of which are exclusive to the shop (i.e. the National League range and the Championship range). These collections include the same hoodies, jackets, half-zips and polo shirts the players wear travelling to games, as well as the clothing that team manager Jack O’Connor wears on the sideline.

The training jerseys sported by the players when they warm up before matches are also popular.

STRONG RELATIONSHIP

After a turbulent period in the nineties when they changed kit supplier three times (adidas to Emerald Active Wear, then to Millfield, and then back to adidas), Kerry have now been with O’Neills for 22 years straight. The relationship between the two parties is strong. Quinn certainly doesn’t see it ending any time soon.

“O’Neills are a great company to deal with. They have a lot of stuff in the pot – 30 or 31 counties – but they’re good at what they do. They wouldn’t be at the top of the game for this long otherwise. Their production is very streamlined, they have a good marketing team, and a good design team. The reps on the ground are very helpful and I can see them going from strength to strength to be honest with you, and further afield in other sports as well.

“The issue with another company coming in instead of O’Neills – for example if we took on another smaller producer – I think the bottom line is that if the team gets to an All-Ireland semi-final or final, the demand for jerseys and leisurewear goes through the roof. I don’t think there’s any other company in the country that could accommodate that demand in such a short space of time. Especially with the season being shortened, I just can’t see anyone else being able to take on that production.

“O’Neills have a monstrosity of a factory up in Strabane as well as the one in Dublin, which is no small factory either. And even at that, when it comes to the summertime, they would be at capacity. I can’t imagine another company taking on a county like Kerry or Dublin or Mayo who are GAA mad and are always at the business end of the season. Other companies will find it hard to dip into the big hitters.”

At a national level, O’Neills jersey sales were actually down 16% in 2022, something the company has attributed to the shorter intercounty window. Thankfully for Quinn and for Kerry, the Kerry GAA Store didn’t experience the same drop in sales once the season ended in July.

“I suppose with Kerry getting to the final and winning it, we weren’t affected as much,” he reflects. “There was a nice little buzz after the final. We brought out some different bits of merchandise on the back of winning as well so that’s always going to help. I also think people are getting ahead of Christmas that bit earlier this year.

“It would be different if Kerry lost earlier in the year but I can’t say the split season affected us too much.”

SEVEN DAYS A WEEK

Quinn took the reins five years ago and although he describes it as a busy job, it’s one he’s massively enjoying.

“I’m loving it. I took over from Botty (Niall O’Callaghan) and Seán O’Sullivan so I had big boots to fill but the boys were great on the handover. I’ve got some good bosses who help me out big time. The county board leave me to my own devices but they’re always there when I need any help.

“It’s busy and we’re open seven days a week. The only days we’re closed are Christmas Day and New Year’s Day so it’s gung-ho all the time. With new ranges and new jerseys and new fashion trends, you have to keep your finger on the pulse at all times. So it is busy but it’s the way I like to be.”

What does a normal day look like?

“It’s always about planning ahead. Today I’m ordering next year’s Christmas range. I don’t even know how exactly Christmas is going to go this year in terms of sales but O’Neills need to plan so far ahead in their production that I’m already ordering for Christmas next year. You’re always trying to keep ahead of the game.

“There are new training jerseys coming out pre-Christmas. There’s a National League range coming out pre-Christmas. There’s an away jersey coming in January. You have to get your numbers right, get your system set up to take in all that stock, organise staff, and make sure everything is streamlined.”

That mention of a new Kerry away jersey will no doubt pique the curiosity of our readers. The outgoing away top, an eye-catching blue and lime green effort, has been in use since 2020. I pressed Luke for details.

“I haven’t even seen samples yet. If you’re talking to O’Neills tell them to send them down as soon as possible! I genuinely don’t know what it will look like. The design team at O’Neills will develop a good few prototypes, they’ll be sent down to ourselves and the county board, and we’ll go through them. O’Neills will give us a good idea of what they feel will work.

“Some of the players will have an input and then a final decision will be made. At the end of January, Kerry will be out against Donegal and hopefully we’ll see the new away jersey then.”

It’s hard to imagine Kerry footballers from bygone eras having (or wanting to have) too much say in the design of the kit but, generally speaking, the modern player is more into fashion than his predecessors. In that regard, it makes sense for them to have their say.

“There would definitely be an input,” Quinn reveals. “Some of the players just want to concentrate on the football or the hurling but other guys would be very style conscious in what they want to wear. Colm Whelan, the kit man for the footballers, and Tim Daly with the hurlers have a big interest in what ranges and training jerseys and playing jerseys are coming in. They know the guys [on the panel] who would be into the fashion side of things and we have a couple of WhatsApp groups to get the players’ opinions.

“O’Neills would definitely take it on board,” Quinn says, before jokingly adding, “I suppose if the best footballer in the country wants a certain thing then you’re going to have to go with it, aren’t you?!”

FOOTBALL TALK

One thing I’ve noticed from my trips to the Kerry GAA Store is the constant flow of GAA-related chat between the customers and the staff. Admittedly you could probably overhear football talk on any premises in a town like Killarney, but the store is the perfect setting for it. And that’s something Quinn and his employees relish. 

“You have all these business things going on in the background but the main thing in all this is the customer. We can’t lose sight of that. You still want to give the customers coming in the best experience, to chat about Kerry football, and engage with the public. That’s what it’s all about.

“This shop is bucking the trend. We do have an online store but it’s still very much a kind of ‘shop local’ set-up. All profits raised go back to the county board and we have so many repeat customers. Some people don’t even buy stuff, they just come in and shoot the breeze about how bad the Crokes were last weekend or whatever. From my point of view, I love it.

“My staff are great too. Seán House from Tralee is the assistant manager. He has been here a year and a bit and he has been excellent. We have eight or nine part-timers and most of them are in college but they’re all very invested in the place. They’re all here four or five years which is a good sign. They get excited when new stuff is coming in, they get a kick out of that.”

As a Kerry native who played the game to a high level, Quinn is naturally a massive fan of Kerry football. I was curious to know if the nature of his line of work, specifically the fact that the fortunes of the business depend so heavily on the fortunes of the team, affects the way he watches the games.

“A couple of years ago Kerry lost to Cork and we were out so early. Maybe not during the game but shortly after you’re saying to yourself, revenues are going to be a lot further down now. So definitely after the game it would be one of the first thoughts to come into your head. But it’s more the county board and the revenues that go back that I’d be thinking of.

“It would pop into your head afterwards but I’d be a normal Kerry supporter as the game is going on.”

Ultimately, it’s all about facilitating the continued growth of football and hurling in the county and Quinn is full of praise for his bosses who help make that happen.

“The chairman Patrick O’Sullivan – the store was his idea first day – as well as John O’Leary, John Joe Carroll and Liam Chute, they’re all very successful in their own professional careers. They’re very much doing this on a voluntary basis because they’re so proud of the shop and how well it has done. We’re all in it together.

“When you have a successful year financially it means you can develop Currans further, you can develop the pitches, you can bring in more Games Development Administrators. You can keep pushing on.”

The brand has a long way to go to reach Nike levels but with talented individuals on the pitch and in the boardroom, Kerry GAA appear to be ticking all the right boxes.

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