Martin Breheny: 'Was style of football behind the 18pc drop in 2018 attendances?'

GAA president John Horan with director-general Tom Ryan’s annual report

Martin Breheny

While the GAA have put forward some practical reasons for the decline in overall attendances at last year's football championships, they are facing the real fear that the style of play adopted by many counties is the biggest contributor.

Crowds at the 2018 All-Ireland football campaign dropped by 18pc on the previous season. That's despite having six more games (39 v 33) than in 2017.

Provincial councils run their own championships, so the figures released by the GAA yesterday refer to All-Ireland qualifiers, 'Super 8s', the semi-finals and final only. And since the All-Ireland final is always a sell-out, it can be removed from the equation.

Misleading

The headline figure in hurling also dropped by 18pc but it's misleading as there were four fewer games than in 2017 due to the changed format in the provincial championships.

It removed six games from the All-Ireland series, reducing the total attendance from 348,905 to 286,703. However, there was a big increase in the turnout for the Leinster and, more especially, the Munster championships, leaving hurling in a positive position overall.

It's different in football where the average attendances were down from 19,049 to 13,225, which led to a gate receipt reduction of €3.7 million. The overall drop for both codes was €4.8m.

GAA finance director Ger Mulryan attributed part of the decline to having two football replays (Kerry v Mayo and Roscommon v Mayo) in 2017, whereas the Clare-Galway hurling semi-final was the only All-Ireland game requiring a replay last year. He also acknowledged the Dublin football factor as a possible cause of decline.

"There was a combination of factors at work here, including the ongoing domination of Dublin in football, resulting in probable or perceived expected victories up to the semi-final stage," he said.

Not having Mayo and Donegal, who always bring very large number of supporters, in the semi-finals was another setback in terms of attendances.

A crowd of 49,496 attended the Monaghan-Tyrone semi-final, down 16,738 on the turnout for Kerry v Mayo (draw) in 2017, while Dublin v Galway attracted 54,717, down 26,454 on the Dublin-Tyrone clash a year later.

That's a disparity of 71,455, underlying the degree to which attendances are influenced by the pairings, even at All-Ireland semi-final stage.

The inaugural 'Super 8s' brought a mixed response from the public, with Mulryan admitting that "the condensed nature of the quarter-final fixtures over the busy summer holiday period did not grow revenues to a level that had been anticipated."

"They delivered in a different way, with the excitement of home and away championship matches outside the confines of Croke Park. From Ballybofey to Killarney and from Newbridge to Roscommon, these sold-out games boosted the local economies with all the colour and excitement of the championship," he said.

Only Kerry and Monaghan had pressing need to win in the last round of Super 8s games, raising the question of whether the system will retain interest if some counties are playing dead-rubbers in Round 3.

"It's in for a three-year trial so let's wait and see how it works out over the three years," said Mulryan.

He put the slight decline in the Allianz league receipts down to the bad weather which seriously disrupted both competitions.

"Gates were strong in the early rounds but reduced significantly following a cancelled round of fixtures due to snowfalls, which closed large parts of the country on one of the busiest weekends of the league, " he said.

Fluctuations between attendances/gate receipts in various years are quite common, but the extent of the drop in football last year will fuel the argument that the real reason is dwindling interest due to the type of game on display.

That consideration was central to the Rules Committee's experimental proposals, most of which carried from pre-season into the Allianz leagues.

However, the biggest change - restricting successive handpasses to three - was rejected by a narrow vote at Central Council, much to the dismay of those who believe that the unlimited version is a turn-off.

Other than the other experimental rules, whose future will be decided on later in the year, it's unlikely that there will be any further changes for the next five years.

That's unless there is groundswell of opinion that last year's attendance drop, which carries a significant financial impact, was caused mainly by the public declaring their frustration over the entertainment levels on offer at many games.