Sunday 26 March 2017

GAA eager to steer clear of fixture clashes

Euro 2012 represents a challenge for the GAA's marketing team, says Damian Lawlor

On the morning after Ireland's 4-0 win in Tallinn all but guaranteed a place at Euro 2012, members of the GAA's Central Council gathered at Croke Park for a scheduled meeting.

The agenda for discussion included financial matters, the assessment of junior and intermediate competitions and the resurrection of the Railway Cup, but president Christy Cooney diverted from the script to another issue. He warned delegates not to underestimate the challenge that Euro 2012 will present to the GAA.

It's going to be a crowded summer with Ireland's rugby team touring New Zealand, Euro 2012, the London Olympics and the GAA championships all jostling for profile.

"We live in the real world and the Munster Council will definitely not be going head to head with any Irish soccer fixture next summer," confirmed provincial chairman Seán Walsh. "And wherever possible we will look to avoid clashes with major games at those championships. Our Association will hold its own -- as it always does -- during this time but we must be mindful of the challenge at hand as well."

With this in mind, the four provincial councils have already met twice and the possibility of further ticket price reductions -- or at the very least the alignment of family packages -- is again on the table for the 2012 hurling and football campaigns.

The Leinster Council's marketing department is looking at ways to improve their presentation of games too.

"I remember we staged a huge game on at Croke Park on the same evening Ireland played Egypt in Italia '90 and we thought we'd be fine as the soccer wasn't an entirely attractive fixture, but we were wrong -- only 17,000 turned up to Croke Park," recalls Leinster CEO Michael Delaney.

"We won't make that mistake again. Euro 2012 was a challenge for us even if Ireland weren't in it because, whether we like it or not, some of our followers watch teams like England and Spain anyway.

"But we welcome any sporting achievement that lifts this country and while there's no doubt a small portion of our hardcore GAA fans will visit Poland/Ukraine, we may just accept that.

"I don't think the Olympics will have a huge bearing but there could well be a lot of euphoria surrounding the soccer team so we'll have to be ready."

With provincial gate receipts crucial, the GAA has acted in recent times to avoid clashes with other sporting contests. Earlier this year, a football championship game between Offaly and Wexford was brought forward to avoid a head to head with the Champions League final, although the Ulster Council pressed ahead with Derry v Donegal on the same night and attracted just 13,000.

There are also other factors that they must consider. Because of the hackneyed back-door format, the hectic live TV scheduling and the fact that certain provincial championship venues are in need of repair, attendance figures are under significant threat.

"Years back, we were screening three games live on a Saturday, which was way too much, but that's down to about one or two now and the balance is right," says Delaney. "We've a large slice of the pie from May to September each year but in 2012 soccer will be the only show in town so we'll need all the TV coverage we can get."

Delaney says they will look at every avenue to boost interest in next year's championship. "If that means printing players' names on the back of jerseys, which could delight and attract more children, we'll look at it.

"We have very creative marketing people working on this and we'll have a no-holds-barred approach to ensuring the GAA stays alive and well."

Kilkenny secretary Ned Quinn believes an intelligent approach is crucial in ensuring the Association keeps its profile high.

"I'm not going to dictate to our officials but obviously avoiding a direct fixture clash with Irish games would be a start," he said. "I thought we adopted a good stance towards ticket prices last year so that's another plus. The marketing approach is also very competent so I have no fears.

"There are small things that can help, though, taking helmets off before the pre-match parades is a directive on the way, issuing squad numbers for the years with players' names on the shirt is another option; that sort of stuff can help out in a small way.

"But we know what's coming down the line and we're not afraid of it. As long as we're intelligent in our approach I don't see any major issues."

Trap's Army may not have captured the imagination of the sporting public in recent years but for the first time in the Italian's reign they filled the Aviva Stadium last Tuesday night. The way the team is set up, one win and two draws should get them out of the group stages. If that happens, the country will go nuts.

Tommie Kenoy, one of the campaigners for Croke Park to be opened to other sports, says they can learn from the FAI in this instance.

"While provincial figures might fall a bit for a couple of weeks, I'm not so sure it will do us any lasting damage at all. Like, we're totally off the air -- except for TG4 -- from September to February so that's something we should probably be more concerned about. But whether we like it or not we're always competing with the Heineken Cup and Six Nations so Euro 2012 will really only add to the mix.

"There are lessons we can learn, though. Last year, the FAI dropped ticket prices to between €5 and €10 for the 2010 Cup final and there were 36,101 at that match. It was an absolutely brilliant idea and we should look at doing something similar along the way. That would definitely help during a tough summer."

Yet, there are some who remain convinced that the roots of the GAA's recent prosperity stems from the seeds sown in 1991, a year after the high the country experienced in Italia '90, and are adamant there is nothing to fear. The '91 season gave us Meath and Dublin's memorable four-game saga and saw Tipperary hurlers crowned champions after two epic encounters with Cork.

The success of Jack Charlton's side threatened to be a massive challenge for the GAA but the immediate aftermath of Italia '90 actually saw successful innovations introduced. The Munster and Leinster Councils, for instance, opted for an open draw in their football championships and let lesser lights shine for a bit. What some feared would prove a financial disaster actually reinvigorated football and hurling.

The GAA also allowed sponsors' names to be displayed on jerseys for the first time. Perhaps, it's now time for further re-invention.

"There will be a smaller bite of the pie for us this time around," admits Central Council delegate and former Waterford chairman Paddy Joe Ryan. "But if the thinking caps are put on again it will help. We'll need to promote ourselves vehemently in 2012 and to make sure there's a significant budget we need to cut costs from top to bottom.

"County boards and clubs are spending way too much on teams and we need to channel those resources elsewhere -- 2012 is about preserving our attendances figures. But we're around a long time. And we'll still be standing next July."

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