Tuesday 16 January 2018

Without some proper outside-the-box thinking, the

Friday night fixtures are a win-win scenario but nobody wants to be the test case, says Colm O'Rourke

GAA's scheduling conundrum will never be solved

Friday night fixtures are a win-win scenario but nobody wants to be the test case, says Colm O'Rourke

Anyone with an interest in American football will probably have heard of the TV series and book Friday Night Lights which features the local high school football team playing before big crowds on the most important night of the week. The colleges played on Saturday with the big professional sides performing on Sunday.

Leinster Council's attempt at a Friday night without lights for a championship game seems to have gone west for next year anyway. The lack of a suitable pairing and little enthusiasm among counties appears to have scuppered the plans of those who wanted to make changes to the traditional schedule. It sums up the GAA in some respects: change comes slowly and every county wants somebody else to be the guinea pig.

It's a pity that at least one game could not be found to test the water. One thing for sure is that players, in general, would love the idea as it would give them a weekend off or even the opportunity to play with their clubs.

Of course there was a fear that players might have to take time off work and would be looking for compensation. It is not really an argument at all as a match at 8.0 on a June evening would hardly necessitate many having to take much time off work.

And how bad would it be if some money had to go on genuine expenses for some players? There are some officials who seem trapped in the past when it comes to dealing with the only people who count. Everyone else can get a cut out of a gate so long as the players never get their hands in the till.

Anyway, if Leinster Council have been snookered in their efforts, at least it gives the fixture-making body for the league a great opportunity to try something different with their version of Friday Night Lights, or maybe even a Thursday night game.

In the last few years I have attended two big games on Thursday nights in Navan, an O'Byrne Cup game between Meath and Dublin and the replay of the senior championship final which drew a bigger crowd than the drawn game. The Meath-Dublin

match attracted a very big crowd so the evidence is there that people will go out during the week to well-marketed games and even ones with no marketing if the pairings are attractive. Weekends seem to suit fewer supporters now so with plenty of local teams paired, especially in the second and third divisions of the league, there is a great chance to try something novel.

Leinster Council have already tried Wednesday nights for under 21 championship matches with a lot of success. Often the weather is not very kind at that time of year but even at that, a huge crowd turned out in Gracefield last year when Meath and Offaly clashed in the under 21 championship. So it is really only tradition which is holding up the show.

For the new league, counties should have as much flexibility as possible in planning their fixtures. Neighbouring counties should come to their own arrangements and if they were willing to give some other night of the week a go then they should be encouraged, rather restricted with the type of interference which surfaced when Dublin tried to have their league match with Mayo on a Friday night.

There are some counties which would see a Friday night match as a great chance for promoting the game; they could flood the secondary schools with free tickets, have some lively half-time entertainment and create a noisy atmosphere. Young people may go then when they won't go at weekends as they have study, matches of their own or are travelling back to college on Sunday afternoon.

The other big attraction on Sundays is the fact that there is usually a huge array of high-quality sport on TV, including live GAA matches. Add in racing, soccer, rugby and there are lots of good reasons for putting the feet up, particularly if Saturday night was a late one and the funds are low.

Now of course there may be issues of counties far from Dublin which have many of their team working in the capital, but with the road network nowadays most places are accessible within a couple of hours. That is why counties in the east should be the first to push the boat out on this one, the logistics are much easier here and in Ulster where counties have tried very successfully to increase crowd sizes at McKenna Cup games with special packages and using different nights of the week to play matches.

Naturally, there are more safety issues with night games but most counties have those under control at this stage, even if it often appears to me that the GAA have to adhere to far more rigid crowd control criteria than anyone else. Perhaps I am missing something here but the issue of bans on crowds standing on grass banks really annoys me. I have watched games on grass banks in Navan for over 40 years and only saw

children having the best of fun. But now they are blocked off by some health and safety edict. It is the height of nonsense and this decree must have been put in place by someone who has no understanding of GAA crowds.

At the same time, Bon Jovi have been the given the go-ahead to play a concert on the grass banks in Slane during the summer with about 80,000 present. It is a great occasion too, but obviously the Electric Picnic concerts, Oxegen and all other outdoor events attract a quiet, refined type of crowd, with no alcohol on board, rather than the wild men who inhabit the grass banks of GAA stadiums. Somebody needs to challenge these stupid, inconsistent rulings which are costing the GAA a fortune.

In the interim, and while this is going on, maybe somebody on the CCCC would show a bit of initiative and put the onus on counties in the league to go and try something different. It might just suit the players, supporters and clubs better while attracting bigger crowds and making more money. Time for our own version of Friday Night Lights.

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