Price cuts needed to put bums on seats
It is unusual to praise sports administrators, but the decision by GAA president Christy Cooney to freeze ticket prices until 2013 shows a rare understanding of the depth and seriousness of the current recession.
This is not a temporary blip, a six or 12-month downturn that will soon be forgotten as the economy booms once more. Ireland is suffering from a reverse that is so severe it will take many years to recover and all sports will have to come to terms with the reality of less money.
Those who rely exclusively on state handouts, distributed by the Irish Sports Council, have already been put on notice by the first round of cuts that came in last December's budget, but it is the higher profile sports that face the toughest challenges over the next four years. The GAA must cope with the loss of revenue from Croke Park now that soccer and rugby are moving to the new Lansdowne Road, while the FAI and IRFU have to shoulder the costs of the new stadium in the midst of recession.
Cooney's price freeze makes sense for the GAA, but it does not go far enough. Unlike rugby and soccer, the GAA is about a mass audience: it has big stadiums to fill across the country throughout the year. The financial imperative of large crowds is matched by the public relations imperative: empty stadiums trigger suggestions that the national games are in crisis. Far better to have 10,000 people paying a fiver to watch a match than 2,000 paying €25, and probably better to have 10,000 paying nothing than 2,000 paying something.
Crowds are vital to every sporting contest, no matter how much revenue flows from television or from sponsors. An almost empty stadium is a lifeless stadium: it destroys the spectacle for the TV audience and works as an anti-promotion by creating the impression that TV viewers are giving up their time to watch something that no one actually cares about. For Cooney and the GAA, mass attendance matters and ticket prices are the key.
For rugby and soccer, the priorities are very different. Provincial rugby takes place in relatively small stadia and success creates demand. Munster can charge what they like for April's quarter-final against Northampton and still sell out Thomond Park, as can Leinster for its quarter-final against Clermont the previous evening.
For the national sides, the sharp reduction in capacity from Croke Park will encourage complacency for both rugby and soccer. That complacency is misplaced. Over the past 20 years the sharp increases in ticket prices and the move towards ever greater reliance on corporate hospitality (the "prawn sandwich" brigade) has left rugby and soccer very exposed to recession.
The corporate cutback has started in earnest and the days of €600 'hospitality' packages for international matches are drawing to a close -- witness the revelation that only one third of corporate packages for last week's match against Italy were taken up. Ticket prices for ordinary fans are already excessive -- €300 for a family of four to attend this year's home rugby matches -- yet the business plans for both the FAI and IRFU will have blithely factored in further increases over the next four years to fund their debts. Those increases cannot happen.
The problem is even more acute for the FAI than it is for the IRFU following the draw for the European Championships. What price a ticket for the Andorra match? Or Armenia? And if the FAI pursues its traditional strategy of packaging its tickets in blocks (you'll only get a ticket for the Russian game if you pay up for Andorra and Armenia as well), what price the three games? With corporates in retreat the pressure to raise even more cash from ordinary fans will intensify, yet the ability of the ordinary fans to pay more has evaporated. For rugby, the often meaningless autumn internationals will be the first to feel the hit, with the bi-annual home series against Scotland, Wales and Italy the next in line (and yes, prices are lower this year than for last year's games against France and England, but still higher than for the same series of matches in 2008).
For soccer, the hit comes quicker thanks to a Euro draw that is distinctly unappealing. Price freezes, however admirable, are just the start. The IRFU needs to accept that in 2012 its prices will have to be lower than in 2010 if it wants to sell out the Aviva for the return of the Italians (unless it happens to be the first home match for the reigning World champions), and the FAI will need to cut even deeper.
Cooney, too, will have to think deep cuts rather than freezes within a few short months if he wants to see crowds on his terraces. He has made an admirable start, but there is plenty more to do.