Saturday 16 December 2017

Stop the sneering and follow Dubs template to get bums on seats

Keith Barr

DRIVING to work yesterday morning I was struck by some-thing pundit Kevin McStay said on the radio about tonight's Spring Series opener in Croke Park.

While full of praise for the idea, he mentioned that ticket sales were doing okay and could be boosted when 'the Dubs' looked out to see what the weather was like. The inference, of course, is that Dubs are fair-weather fans, not interested enough to devote their time to following core GAA activity at club or county level.

McStay wasn't saying anything new and to be fair, the former Mayo attacker is a keen follower of Dublin's fortunes but he is -- like most country pundits who comment on Dublin -- being inconsistent.

What I mean is that it's fine to apply some initiative to selling the Allianz League or early season clashes to fans, so long as Dublin are the circus act at the centre. And sure you have to add a bit of razzmatazz for the Dubs because they're not 'real' GAA fans.

We'll probably get upwards of 30,000 in Croke Park tonight, which would be exceptional.

I was at the equivalent football fixture last year in Cork and there was a small crowd, despite the Rebels being the strongest GAA county in Ireland with a big city and rural following. They don't get large crowds for the league; very few do.

Sneering at Dublin's supposedly fickle support misses the point. Dublin can generate crowds, huge ones. Are we ever going to get over this parochial nonsense and think positively about new ways of promoting games?

What we need to do is generate crowds at other venues, for other counties.

At the hurling league clash between Galway and Wexford last week, only 600 fans turned up -- a meeting of two of the top 10 hurling counties. Where were the supporters? Did the Galway fans look out at the weather and decide against attending? Did the pundits ask the question?

We know Dublin hurling has been thriving despite existing in the shadow of the well-supported footballers. It makes absolute sense to harness the draw of a double header.

Kildare have switched their hurlers to the undercard of the footballers tomorrow -- good move. Same should go for Galway, Wexford, Cork, Clare and all the other counties who bother themselves to nurture both codes.

Last year, after the snow played havoc with the Tipp-Kilkenny clash, free admission drew a huge crowd to the fixture. Okay, we can't provide free entertainment but initiative still won the day and ticket prices are a massive part of the deal.

It doesn't matter if the fans make sandwiches in clubhouses, line pitches or decide in August to go to their first game of the year. We need to attract them.

Allianz League games are commercial events and they need to be marketed to increase attendances. Better attendances are good for the game, good for the players, good for the GAA and good for fans.

I think the Spring Series is a brilliant idea and John Costello and Dublin chairman Andy Kettle deserve a lot of praise for supporting this initiative, particularly the ticket prices. And there's no point being cynical about Jedward, given that there will be several thousand children watching Conal Keaney hurl on the back of their antics.

The problem I have is that this type of promotional activity in recent years has been focused almost exclusively on Dublin.

All around the country, a lot of facilities at county venues have improved with better stands and floodlighting. And there is no reason that good fixtures cannot be promoted heavily locally, with creative pricing, encouraging families, providing additional entertainment and improving catering facilities.

Why not parade the Horslips out in Casement Park; why not get the Saw Doctors up to Mayo or regularly into Pearse Park; would Jedward not work in Mullingar?

Tyrone and Donegal clash tonight, Kerry travel to Castlebar tomorrow. These are seriously good fixtures; the product is excellent when compared to other sports. Yet even by calling it a 'product' I risk being slated by some elements in the GAA.

Of course it's handy for Dublin fans to travel to Croker, but that is not the issue. The issue is that if you have to travel a 120-mile round trip to a league match in your county, then county boards need to make sure the event is as enjoyable an experience as possible. It is not enough just to stand still and run the fixtures.

Another reservation I have with the almost exclusive use of Dublin as a promotional tool for the league is that it exposes the players to even further scrutiny beyond that placed on their rivals. This leads to accusations of hype and players believing in it, which simply isn't true.

It is Dublin who will be in the spotlight tonight even though they are up against the champions, who showed again two weeks ago how formidable they are.

However, it is Dublin, not Cork who are being hyped in the media with talk of All-Irelands, burying mental ghosts and prioritising the league even though they are without more than half of their first-team players.

Let's view it this way. If Cork win, people will read little more into to it other than the champions reasserting their dominance, while Dublin's loss will lead to question marks about their prospects, despite the fact that they are starting with just one of last summer's first-choice defenders.

I expect tonight's clash will be well contested but I also expect Cork to win. It's no big deal. Their style isn't always attractive, but they have impressed me greatly for the past few years and I believe they are getting stronger. The Dublin full-back line in particular looks extremely vulnerable against Donncha O'Connor, Colm O'Neill and Daniel Goulding. And if the defence is stretched, they are likely to concede frees to the best in the business at the moment.

From a Dublin perspective, it gives two players the chance to stake a longer-term claim by performing at headquarters.

Diarmuid Connolly hasn't gelled to date with Pat Gilroy's game plan but showed signs already this year that he's prepared to put his shoulder to the wheel.

Unfortunately, it would be easier for Connolly to reassert his credentials away from a high-profile clash on this scale, but it is a chance for him nonetheless.

Kevin McManamon's experience of Croke Park last summer didn't reflect his excellent league performances, but he's playing well again and it would be a big confidence boost for him if he can escape the shackles of Paudie Kissane on enough occasions tonight.

Under Gilroy, there is no doubt that Dublin players are simply not indulged. Huge work rate and commitment are obligatory but that does not shield Dublin from hype and unrealistic expectation.

Putting themselves out there to promote the league is noble.

It would help if other counties saved the cynicism for politicians and followed Dublin's example.

Irish Independent

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