Fixture pile-up makes no sense
DESPITE being ordered not to train collectively until after December 31, GAA players are facing the second busiest month of the 2012 inter-county season in January.
A total of 92 games are on the hectic schedule as all four provinces play pre-season tournaments in preparation for the start of the Allianz Leagues in February.
The action starts in Connacht on Wednesday, January 4 with two games in the FBD Football League, while there will be action in all four provinces from the following Sunday.
Remarkably, only March will be busier than January, raising questions as to the fairness of demanding that players who aren't allowed to train together until the start of the new year have such a heavy programme in January.
However, the busy January represents only part of the anomaly in a fixtures schedule that is heavily front-loaded towards the first half of the year.
By the end of March, almost 53pc of inter-county games in all grades will have been completed; by the end of June almost 87pc will have been completed and the figures will reach almost 94pc by the end of July, leaving 6pc for August-September.
County and provincial club championships fill the October-November-December period and while they are of big local interest, they don't capture the broader public imagination, allowing soccer and rugby to enjoy a large share of the GAA's market.
A study issued this week showed that over 30pc of those surveyed listed soccer as their favourite sport, 10pc ahead of Gaelic games, which was only marginally ahead of rugby.
That's not necessarily as bleak as it looks for the GAA, since the international dimension of soccer and rugby, complete with saturation coverage across a range of channels, will always give those sports a profile boost but, nevertheless, the question of how the GAA maximises its appeal remains a big challenge.
Much of December has been taken up with reports that inter-county squads are breaking the training ban, with the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) now set to probe into whether Roscommon were guilty of breaching the regulations last week.
It means that while soccer and rugby are gaining profile all the time, there's a negative focus on the alleged breaches of the GAA training ban.
Once the new year arrives, the GAA season takes off with alarming speed, reaching its busiest period in March, when there are no fewer than 174 inter-county games across senior, minor and U-21 levels on the packed programme.
The February-March period also sees the completion of the All-Ireland club championships, plus the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup competitions.
Now, the CCCC have added to the hectic schedule by fixing the inter-provincial championships for February/early March -- when most players are already extremely busy.
The inter-pros weren't played for two seasons but are being re-introduced following a Central Council instruction but their timing seems extraordinary, given that there are always complaints about player overload in the early part of the year.
That, plus the return of semi-finals to the Allianz Football Leagues, will leave players facing an unusually busy March/April. There are NFL games scheduled for four successive weekends in March, while the two counties who reach the final will also be in action on three weekends in April.
It means they will play seven games over nine weekends.
"It's going to be very busy but our hands were tied. We had to add the inter-provincials and the knockout stages of the league to the schedule for 2012 so it was always going to be a tight squeeze in the early part of the year," said Fergal McGill, the GAA's head of games administration.
With clubs complaining that they are not getting enough games for long stretches of the season, there's growing pressure on the GAA at central level to further compress inter-county programmes.
However, that comes at a price as it reduces media exposure for ever-increasing periods, presenting an open goal for soccer and rugby to exploit.
It should be of serious concern to the GAA, especially at a time when rugby is becoming increasingly popular -- both as a playing and spectator sport -- in areas where football and/or hurling dominated over the years.