Sport GAA

Monday 23 September 2019

So it's in with the ball, up with the shout and off we go to the carnival

The Couch

Páraic Duffy. Photo: Sportsfile
Páraic Duffy. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

In the age of consumption there is more of everything and, in keeping with the times, the GAA is opening up a stall at the all-you-can-eat buffet too.

They had to do it. Páraic Duffy was one of the few who clearly saw the urgent need for expansion. And he was about the only one with the courage, and the requisite political skills, to make it become a reality. In March he retired as director-general of the GAA, one of the best it has ever had. The new championship formats in hurling and Gaelic football will be a fitting legacy to his ten years in charge of the crazy old rodeo.

With the four provincial councils adamantly opposed to any tinkering with the football template inside their bailiwicks, Duffy couldn't go through them with his reforms. So instead he went around them. It took a lot of thought, strategy and conviction. With the groundwork comprehensively prepared, he brought his proposals to Congress in February 2017. They duly sailed through the vote. It was a home run, his plan had lift-off.

Championship 2018 will therefore see the historic debut of the so-called Super 8. Where Gaelic football led, its little sister had to follow. In September, 2017 a special meeting of Congress endorsed proposals for a round-robin hurling championship in Leinster and Munster.

The upshot will be more games, more revenue and more media exposure this summer than ever before.

The pressure on hurling to compete with football is an example in the microcosm of the pressure on both codes from globalisation. The GAA does not operate in a vacuum. Its indigenous nature does not insulate it from international forces. It remains in perpetual competition, primarily with soccer and rugby, for the support of every new generation. It simply had to expand its market offering to even keep up.

The UEFA Champions League, for example, was once known as the European Cup. In its first season, 1955/'56, 16 teams competed. It was a straightforward process of elimination, with eight teams gone after the first round of home and away games. Ditto the quarter-finals and semi-finals. The entire tournament was run off in 29 games. The total this year from group stages to final will be 125 games. Last year's final between Juventus and Real Madrid pulled in an estimated worldwide television audience of 350 million. The European Cup always had a pure sporting pedigree of the highest prestige. In the early 1990s UEFA took that pedigree, re-branded it as the Champions League and transformed it into an all-conquering corporate, financial and marketing juggernaut.

This is the level of competition that all minority sports face in the 21st century marketplace. In the GAA's niche corner of that universe, they had to do something too. The concerns about the grassroots ecosystem, about the ongoing marginalisation of the club game, are real and valid. But while Croke Park holds the power, it does not have autonomy; these international pressures are forcing its hand. The GAA is a tiny boat in a vast ocean.

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The expanded roster of games in hurling and football is part of its strategy to hold on to market share in this rapidly evolving environment. Likewise its TV deals with Sky Sports and eir Sport. It is delusional to think that the GAA can afford to turn down the revenues and diversity that come with a second, or indeed third or fourth broadcast partner.

Rugby union was once a sleepy amateur backwater too. It has been changing at a dizzying speed since it officially went professional in 1995. On these islands the first big bang came with its version of soccer's European Cup, the Heineken Cup. Out of nowhere it sprung to life and has gone from strength to strength despite its many growing pains. The rise of the four Irish provinces in Europe has created a whole new support base for the game in this country.

In 1997, meanwhile, the GAA made its first tentative changes to the century-old championship formats when it introduced the second-chance saloon in hurling, albeit only for the beaten Munster and Leinster finalists. In 2001 the so-called 'back door' arrangement was introduced for football, and this time for all teams. It was seen as a landmark reform (driven by Duffy back then too) which only proves how deeply conservative the organisation still was at the time.

By then, the Munster rugby team had already played in a Heineken Cup final. By the end of the decade, they and Leinster would become European champions with enormous profiles on this island. The rugby revolution continued with Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and some of the most popular sportsmen Ireland has ever produced.

Given the perennial popularity of the national soccer team and the eternal attractions of Liverpool FC and Manchester United, alongside the phenomenal growth of the Premier League, the Champions League and the quantum leap in rugby's appeal, the GAA has done remarkably well overall to retain such a prominent place in the nation's affections.

But against the backdrop of all these changes in the domestic and international sphere, it no longer had the luxury of standing still. Expansion was essential. We can look back now to 2001 and say that the reforms introduced then were almost pitifully timid. But the wider GAA community is beholden to its traditions. In ten years' time it may look back at another decade of transformation in the sporting landscape and agree that the Super 8 and the round-robins of 2018 didn't go far enough either.

Anyway, they're here now. They are not a panacea; some games will be duds; it might be a case of never mind the quality, feel the width. But it is new and exciting and it deserves a fair wind. So, in with the ball, up with the shout, and off we go to the carnival.


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