By PJ Cunningham
The GAA has still a lot to learn when it comes to promoting its own games, as can be instanced from the rounded-up number of 100 hardy souls in Aughrim for the Wicklow v Wexford derby game on Saturday afternoon, or the 82 braves who turned out to support Waterford footballers in their game against Antrim.
While I can understand only the squad, officials and one or two souls arriving from Antrim to a Division 4 game in Waterford city, it should have been different in Aughrim.
Wicklow were in the chase for promotion going into their meeting with Wexford but drew one of the smallest crowds in the history of this venerable venue.
Holding the fixture as an early Saturday afternoon throw-in has never worked with GAA followers and why the association persists with it baffles me.
Yet when the qualifiers come around in early summer, you can be sure we will find the same thing – it’s as if the authorities feel it is more important to run off the fixtures rather than extricating full value from them as promotional tools.
In today’s world where there are so many sports and indeed other activities competing with the GAA for family attention, it is now apposite for authorities to sit down and plan out how floodlit games or indeed double-headers, particularly in summer, can add to the atmosphere and excitement.
While there were more reasons than the obvious to the fact that the GAA lost €3.5 million in gate receipts last year – including a change of championship format in both hurling and football and more replays in 2017 – nevertheless, there is a warning contained in such loss that all is not well.
While hurling is continuing to hold its own in terms of popularity, football is feeling the pinch of ‘the hand pass era’ which makes the game much less attractive than when there was player-to-player competition for possession.
Unfortunately, due to lack of proper planning for the future of the game, rules which would have restricted the use of hand pass for the better, were thrown out, meaning we will have this across the field fare with us for a number of years to come.
If you were ever to despair about the future of Gaelic football, then a video put up on joe.ie last week brought me as close to the brink as is possible.
It showed an U-15 colleges game between Abbey CBS, Newry (Down) and St Patrick’s, Maghera (Derry), where the final score was 0-2 to 0-1 in favour of St Pats.
A reporter from the Irish news, Cahair O’Kane, took some footage on his phone where every member of the Abbey side could be seen inside their own 45-metre line for most of the game.
This negative set-up reduced the number of real chances, hence the final score-line – or should that be bore-line.
Now I agree that all the marketing and PR work in the world won’t promote a game with such a mindset, but the GAA is in serious danger if it thinks that the present generation will turn up like their parents did out of blind loyalty to a product that fails to excite.
Heaven help us if this is the future of our national football games, but hopefully as in the past the GAA will get there in the end.
All they have to do is look at the state of the League of Ireland in soccer to realise that failure to market your product leads to a seriously undervalued game to sell.
With the exception of three or maybe four teams – Cork City, Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and maybe Derry when they are going well, there is very little support, and all of these teams are semi-professional outfits.
Believe it or not, Dublin have worked hard on promoting themselves as a sporting spectacle worthy of following, while Leinster, Munster and maybe best of all, Connacht, have also made their rugby brands something easy to identify with.
The GAA needs to have a vibrant brand of its own – and not just for the Kerry v Dublin football and Tipperary v Kilkenny hurling matches. Each county has the potential to whip up its own support, if a planned approach is set out for counties to follow.
Yes, a successful team is a big plus – think of the big crowd (4,000) Leitrim drew as they won promotion out of Division 4 against London in a heaving Pairc Seán Mac Diarmada on Sunday. But success can be packaged too.
That Wicklow were at throw-in time yesterday in the hunt for promotion, is a success story for a team that only had two draws to show for their endeavours in last year’s campaign.
As events transpired, Leitrim’s victory meant a Wicklow win against Wexford would not have kept the promotion dream alive, but it would have put them into third place – a big jump from 2018 you will agree.
Playing any inter-county football match in front of a ‘crowd of 100’ or a ‘crowd of 82’ is an indictment on the association – both at local and national level.
Many years ago, the then Director-General of the GAA, Liam Mulvihill foresaw a time when inter-county games would be played on Wednesday and Friday nights because fans would be better disposed to attend at these times.
He also suggested that it might be better for some weaker counties to look at joining up with a neighbouring county to form a stronger entity in terms of competing for provincial honours.
We haven’t had much forward thinking since but maybe the time to look at innovation to promote league and championship games are upon us.
As someone who was there I know, there is nothing as demoralising as an almost empty stadium staging an inter-county game.