Eugene McGee: Time for GAA to bring back autumn start to leagues
Last Saturday I noticed there were seven pages of soccer coverage and six pages devoted to rugby in the compact edition of the Irish Independent but only a couple of pages of Gaelic games. The proportions were much the same in the other national newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet. This will be the situation for the next few months and simply reflects the levels of high-grade sport on offer.
The GAA nowadays puts great focus on promoting the games through sponsorship, matches live on television etc, but one wonders if they always have their priorities right. Publicity is the fuel that powers sports promotion, whether it be heavyweight boxing or a night at the dogs.
But in the GAA the greatest promotion, by far, is the actual games themselves. It is the games that draw the crowds, thus creating the coverage in newspapers, radio, television and internet, which further promotes the cause of the GAA.
Bearing that in mind, is the GAA not losing out heavily by not playing any senior inter-county fixtures for four successive months -- October, November, December and January? There may be tournament games in January but these carry very limited appeal to fans who have to pay good money to watch experimental teams, and provide little fodder for the media.
Can the GAA afford the luxury of playing the National Leagues in one sequence in February, March and April instead of the previous system, when about half of the league was played pre-Christmas?
The arguments that led to changing the system some years ago largely centred on the complaints that inter-county players were too tired to play league games in October and November. The provincial club championships were another factor which were considered but mainly it was the desire to give county players a rest.
But time moves on, even in the GAA, and many people now wonder about the validity of this argument. Two thirds of county teams have departed the championship by the end of July; many, indeed, several weeks earlier.
Most county club championship teams have left the scene by the end of August. All this leaves a lot of county players idle for four to five months and this has been aggravated by the order from Croke Park that county teams are not allowed to train until January 1.
I have no doubt that a lot of players would be only too happy to play league games in October/November, at a time when the weather is generally suitable. The many county managers who take over a new team -- so far there are 11 this year -- are at a great disadvantage compared to sitting managers because of that January restriction and start their task well behind as a result.
But the matter that should most concern the GAA is the promotion effect. Is it sensible to hand over media outlets almost exclusively to the GAA's biggest rivals, rugby and soccer, for three or four months every year?
Since Irish interest in the Heineken Cup has increased so much in recent years the coverage of rugby is now on a par with the GAA. Premier League soccer seems to demand insatiable amounts of newspaper coverage as well as television, so it is little wonder that young people regard Gaelic games as solely summer sports and soccer and rugby as the primary winter sports.
If the GAA was a commercial organisation, which, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, it is not, then the marketing department, if the GAA had such a thing, would certainly be pushing very hard for a change in the present system. They would not give their direct opposition unfettered access to the media spotlight for a third of each year.
Playing some league games in the autumn would be a more streamlined and appealing business nowadays than it was in the old days. At least 16 counties have adequate floodlights for games; this could allow a redrawing of fixtures from the old Sunday, 2.30, dates.
If the will was there at the top level in the GAA -- and that is a very big if -- then a very attractive television schedule featuring National League games could be set up, hopefully with a decent sponsor involved.
I have no doubt substantial audiences could develop if it was called something like 'Monday Night Football' and well promoted and marketed. RTE, of course, would not be interested, as they go into hibernation from the day after the All- Ireland final until the following May but thankfully there are other television stations; anyway, it can't be long until the GAA starts its own television company.
It is time for the GAA to review the National League situation if they are serious about tackling soccer and rugby head on.