Qualifiers proving winner with fans after attendance boost
THE All-Ireland championship qualifiers are beating the recession, with attendances so far this season up 15pc on last year.
And with four more appetising football games on the agenda this Saturday, the turnstiles will continue to click merrily as the qualifiers show that 10 years after their introduction, they remain hugely popular with the public.
However, big crowds are contingent on the draws producing interesting pairings in the early rounds, in particular. There's always a pick-up from Round 3 on, but the first two rounds can sometimes be slow unless the pairings are really attractive.
A series of appealing ties in the opening rounds has excited the public to such a degree that two of this Saturday's games (Meath v Kildare in Navan and the Wicklow v Armagh replay in Aughrim) are all-ticket affairs.
Suggestions that the two games should be played at Croke Park as a double-header came to nothing as Meath and Wicklow are, under qualifier regulations, entitled to home advantage and were unwilling to forego it.
A double-header at Croke Park would attract a bigger aggregate crowd, but the GAA made no attempt to persuade Meath and Wicklow to concede home advantage.
"Absolutely not. Meath and Wicklow would have to agree to switch and they weren't going to do that and nobody could expect them to. This is the championship and teams want whatever edge is going. Playing at home is definitely one of those, so Meath were never going to leave Navan, no more than Wicklow would give up Aughrim. There will be a great atmosphere at both venues," said GAA director general, Paraic Duffy.
Describing last Saturday's Armagh-Wicklow game as the best he had seen so far in the football championship, Duffy said the surge of interest in this year's qualifiers was undoubtedly helped by the pairings.
"We were lucky enough to get some very attractive ties in both football and hurling. That always makes a big difference. We have been fortunate, too, with the weather on Saturday evenings which has been very good," he said.
"It wasn't as pleasant on a few Sundays early in the provincial championships and that probably had an impact on crowds. We'd like to think that the drop in admissions charges for the qualifiers has helped too. Overall, we're thrilled with the turnout."
Attendances at the Munster football and hurling finals and the Leinster hurling final were up 26pc on last year, while the Leinster football final dropped by 10pc.
Pairings were crucial to the increases and decreases. Cork v Kerry (Munster football) attracted over 40,000 last Sunday week, whereas Kerry v Limerick last year drew 24,000. The Tipperary-Waterford Munster hurling final was up 700 on last year's drawn game (Cork v Waterford), while 5,500 more watched this year's Kilkenny-Dublin Leinster hurling final than Kilkenny v Galway last year.
The crowd of 43,983, which attended last Sunday's Leinster football final, was much lower than expected for a decider involving Dublin and fell 5,000 short of the turnout for Louth v Meath last year.
"Pairings play a big part whether it's in the provinces, the All-Ireland qualifiers, the quarter or semi-finals. That's why comparing crowds from year to year doesn't always produce an accurate analysis. In general terms, though, we are very pleased with the trend this year.
"The country is living through tough times, but the public are continuing to support our games. They obviously believe they are getting value for money," said Duffy.
There's no doubt that this year's early round qualifier draws produced more interesting pairings than last year.
Louth v Meath was the headline act in Round 1 football, while Round 2 produced several very interesting pairings, including Meath v Galway, Laois v Kildare, Longford v Tyrone and Armagh v Wicklow.
There's an added bonus for Wicklow as it has delivered a replay in Aughrim, guaranteeing another remarkable occasion for the town -- and, indeed, the whole county -- on Saturday.
The total attendance at last weekend's 10 football and hurling qualifiers was 72,482 which, when added to the crowds at the Leinster football and Munster hurling finals, brought the total turnout for the weekend to 153,000.
Now in their 10th year, the football qualifiers have settled in as an integral part of the championship and while there are still critics who claim that the second chance disproportionately benefits the stronger counties, there's no doubt it has also enriched the summer for many others.
Wicklow are enjoying an exciting adventure for the second time in three seasons, while Waterford, who never won a qualifier tie up to last Saturday, now find themselves in Round 3, as do Antrim, who had a dismal 'back door' record up to this year.
"Nobody ever said it was the perfect system, but it has ensured that every county gets at least two championship games, which was the initial aim. As well as that, it has given us a lot more games in the summer months which is good for the promotion of the GAA. The figures show that the public have responded, even in these difficult times," said Duffy.
As of now, 17 counties remain in the race for Sam Maguire, comprised of six from Ulster (Armagh, Down, Derry, Donegal, Antrim, Tyrone), five from Leinster (Dublin, Wexford, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow), four from Munster (Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and two from Connacht (Roscommon, Mayo).