Camogie’s greatest benefactor is giving back to the game she loves

CARMEL NAUGHTON is either the greatest benefactor the sport of camogie has had, or its most important ever sponsor.

For someone who has become the most influential female commercial partner across all Irish sport, she is at pains throughout our interview to emphasize that her multi-million euro outlay has not been done for praise.

“We certainly don’t do it for thanks, but we do it for what we hope is for the good of Camogie and in a small way the good of the country,” she explains.

So instant gratification and backslap can be crossed from the list of possible reasons why a grandmother-of-10 would want to become one of the biggest players in Irish sports sponsorship at this stage in her life.

Even getting her to promote her investment in Camogie took a little convincing, first with a phone call that felt more like a friendly interview, which then paved the way for a fascinating insight into the sport’s most intriguing benefactors.

For those who don’t yet know, Carmel Naughton is the media-shy matriarch of the Glen Dimplex electrical goods empire, who outside the embrace of family, philanthropy and business, puts a love of camogie as one of the most formative experiences in her life.

Such a passion for the sport has remained undiminished through her almost eight decades on earth, and last March she rocked the sports commercial world when unveiled as the new sponsor of the All Ireland Camogie Championship and the Camogie Association.

Naughton and Glen Dimplex were announced in an extraordinary five-year deal which would see unprecedented investment in the game – in an initial headline partnership that represents a lifetime for a first-time sponsor.

Throughout our conversation and subsequent exchanges there is little doubt that this investment is unique in the sponsor-rights holder relationship – with this arrangement the sport must come first for the investor and the company brand second. A refreshing, and perhaps extraordinary position.

To fully absorb what the Carmel Naughton-Glen Dimplex arrangement means for camogie and women’s sport, it helps to appreciate the size of that investment.

By the most reliable information, Naughton and the Glen Dimplex company – established into a multi-billion euro business by her husband Martin – will pour millions into the game over the initial term of the agreement.

One trusted insider believes that arrangement may be as high as €1m per year, but whatever the actual total, it’s not something she doesn’t want to get into except to describe it as “significant”.

That money paid to the Camogie Association comes from a share of Carmel Naughton’s personal cash and part investment by Glen Dimplex, in which all branding and marketing assets go directly to the company.

The cash exchanges will allow camogie to reach heights it could only dream of, as it now has the funds to significantly redistribute to the 600 clubs and up to 100,000 girls and women who play.

So where does the enduring passion for the sport begin? For Carmel Naughton it goes back to county Monaghan, when times were less inclusive, and when she recalled girls were told they were “stupid”.

While there is still some distance to travel for all women’s sports, the landscape for sportswomen in the 50s and 60s was one of utter foreboding.

“We just got on with things as best we could,” she says matter-of-factly.

The best they could, for Naughton, her sister Nuala O’Malley, and a group of other formidable young girls was to rely on nobody but themselves to provide the equipment and resources they needed to play.

“We made our own uniforms, which consisted of a short mustard skirt and big thick woolly tights,” which she recalls was not approved by everyone.

“I can assure you the Monaghan of the 1950s and 60s was not an exciting place, so we really made the best of it.

“It’s extraordinary how we had no coaches, but we brought our camogie sticks and went out to play ourselves.

“That’s why the Ireland of today now delights me, particularly how far girls (and women’s) sport has come – today girls can strive to do anything they want in sport, education or in business.”

Not being told that she could do something would only spur her on, particularly after an even more profound exchange which led to another great development in Carmel’s later years.

“I remember we had a nun at school who told us that girls were stupid and couldn’t do maths,” she explains, with the same disbelief today that the comments provoked back then.

Many years later she would set up the Naughton Foundation which awards scholarships to all students – boys and girls – with an emphasis on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Foundation was established by Martin (now the advisory chair of Glen Dimplex) and Carmel Naughton in 1994 for education and arts, and was turned into a scholarship program in 2008 to support Leaving Cert students.

This work probably demonstrates best that giving back is a key part of her make-up – albeit for someone with the means and desire to do so, right into later life.

That motivation turned towards camogie where Naughton said she always wanted to do something of value, and a conversation at a function with the GAA’s Commercial Director Peter McKenna in recent years, led to her big move.

“When I met Peter (McKenna) I told him we were trying to organize something for the game of Camogie, and I told him to come back to me when he was ready.

“I told him that he’d be pushing on an open door.”

McKenna quickly introduced her and Glen Dimplex to the relevant people from the Camogie Association and the process of putting a commercial deal in place evolved.

Contract production can be a lengthy process in any major sport, especially for a first-time lead partner, and Naughton admits that she much preferred “the days when deals were conducted through a handshake and your word”.

“Of course these things are entirely necessary today and once documents and agreements were finally completed I was extremely happy that the Camogie Association would be set up financially, and here we are,” she says.

And where they are exactly is on the eve of a first ‘Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Final’ in which Carmel Naughton will witness that reality at Croke Park, together with teammates from her days in Monaghan.

It’s quite clear that the sponsorship has had an enormous impact on the Camogie Association — its President Hilda Breslin described the partnership as something that would allow the realization of so many plans it has for the game.

“This new sponsorship enables us to progress with many important initiatives and allows us to plan for the future. We look forward to working together to grow this wonderful women’s sport,” said Breslin.

It’s a very Irish thing that rights holders and commercial partners generally don’t give details on the value of such deals, and this one is no different.

“It’s a substantial amount but really I’m not comfortable talking about it,” she replied, to the crude question of cash.

“The real value is what the Camogie Association can do with this money and the good it will do for the sport.”

Certainly the profile of the Camogie Championship has risen in the early lifetime of the arrangement in pure visibility terms alone, with engaging video and advertising activations obvious across social and all media.

Development of the game will follow, and an expected uplift in participation that such considerable investment should bring.

And with the commercial ownership of one of the four major All-Ireland championships, Carmel Naughton’s entry into sports sponsorship has been a revelation for the quietly spoken, deeply thoughtful, savior of camogie.

“This is a position I am very blessed to be in,” she ends.

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