Sport GAA

Monday 20 January 2020

Perfect storm blows crowds way off course

GAA director general Páraic Duffy wants an overhaul of the football championship. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
GAA director general Páraic Duffy wants an overhaul of the football championship. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
A view of the small crowd in the Hogan Stand during the Leinster SFC final between Dublin and Westmeath last July. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

GAA county chairmen have been summoned to Croke Park today to consider proposals for change to the All-Ireland football championship format. It comes at a time when football attendances have declined to their lowest levels since 2000 - the year before the qualifiers were introduced. Our reporter examines a worrying trend.

It was scarcely a coincidence that Páraic Duffy included attendance figures for the All-Ireland football championships since the turn of the Millennium in a document on proposed changes circulated to counties this week.

The GAA Director General is recommending an overhaul of the closing stages of the football championships, with an eight-team, two-group 'round robin' replacing the quarter-finals.

He is also advocating running off the provincial championships earlier and on a much tighter timescale, where all the finals are completed by the third Sunday in June.

That, in turn, would have a knock-on effect for the All-Ireland finals, rescheduling them for the second (hurling) and fourth (football) Sundays in August.

Other than timing alterations, Duffy proposes no change in the hurling format but contends that an adjustment to the latter stages in football would make for a better competition.


An attempt to amend the format at this year's Congress failed amid a hotchpotch of proposals. Still, judging by the number and variety of submissions, there's general agreement that the current system is seriously flawed.

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Despite that, it's impossible to get agreement on the best way forward. And since retaining the provincial championships remain sacrosanct, it's very difficult to devise a system that's fair and equitable.

However, the need for change is obvious, not least because overall attendances are dropping. The figures which Duffy circulated this week show that 2016 crowds (exclusive of replays) were at their lowest since 2000, the year before the qualifiers were introduced.

The football turnout was down 28pc on 2006 and 16pc on 2011. Without replays, the total attendance was 788,746. Replays attracted 136,000, bringing the total to almost 925,000.

With the hurling championships attracting around 450,000, it will leave the overall turnout at 1,380,000, an excellent return by any standards.

However, the question remains: why are football figures in decline? Between 2001 and 2009, the average attendance was 1,087,456, whereas since then it stands at 881,935. That's a drop of 205,521, equating to 3,425 per game.

In 2003, the average attendance per game was 19,433 - this year it had decreased to 13,146, a drop of 6,287.

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The figures are still remarkably healthy when compared to pre-2000 but the downward spiral has to be of concern to the GAA, with this year especially worrying since it dropped over 100,000 on last year.

The recession has obviously been a factor in the slump but it cannot be blamed solely, especially since it hasn't had anything like the same impact on hurling.

Three other likely reasons for the football drop-off come to mind: the uncompetitive nature of the Leinster championship, declining interest in the qualifiers and, perhaps most significantly of all, dissatisfaction with the way the game is being played.

The figures for Leinster are stark. The total attendance at this year's championship was 130,469, down 18pc on last year and 22pc on 2014.

Over 303,000 attended the 2005 Leinster championship, while the figure remained above 200,000 until 2009.

Dublin's title haul in Leinster - 11 in the last 12 seasons - would not, in itself, be a problem if Jim Gavin's men were being run close.

However, their dominance has been strengthening all the time and has now reached a stage where they are quoted at 1/25 to retain the title next year.

The comparison between the last two Leinster finals is interesting. A crowd of 47,890 attended the Dublin-Westmeath final last year but it dropped to 38,855 (the lowest for a final since the 2004 Laois-Westmeath replay) when the counties met again this year.

That's in sharp contrast with the 67,075 which attended the 2008 Dublin-Westmeath Leinster semi-final, followed by 80,131 for the Dublin-Wexford final.

Dublin's overwhelming dominance has had a knock-on effect. Since there's no confidence that anyone will come close to challenging them, it's inevitable that interest in other games decreases too.

The Leinster championship crowd decline feeds heavily into the national decrease and has been exacerbated by a growing disinterest in the early rounds of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

The novelty value of the 'back door' action has long since passed, as evidenced by the first round last year when the average attendance at the eight games was less than 2,500.

And then, there's the issue of entertainment value. However much managers and coaches like to lecture anyone who complains about the attractiveness of the modern game as a spectacle the fact remains that many people are bored by its sterility.

It's not all bad, of course. Indeed, there are lots of innovations which have added to its appeal but they do not include jamming the defensive half and hand-passing ad nauseam until spectators wonder if the aim is to bore them to sleep.

Despite that, there are no proposals to tackle the scourge of the handpass.

It has no restrictions whatsoever, despite its negative impact on entertainment levels. Indeed, a modest proposal to ban handpassing back to the goalkepper was rejected by Congress. Incessant handpassing cannot be blamed for all of the attendance slump but there's every reason to believe that it's playing a considerable role.

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