Condemned by its own figures
IT'S official – there aren't enough hurling games to satisfy the public appetite.
The compelling evidence is contained in the GAA's accounts, published this week, which show that despite having far fewer games than football, hurling contributes a disproportionate return to the Croke Park coffers.
Last year, the six-team Allianz Hurling League Division 1A 20-game programme yielded more than €1m, only €12,353 less than the Division 1 football campaign, which comprised eight counties and took in 31 games.
In addition, football enjoyed the advantage of having Dublin, who were on a high after winning the All-Ireland title for the first time since 1995, swelling the Division 1 take, which was further boosted by an aggressive marketing campaign for the Spring Series in Croke Park.
Games involving Dublin in Croke Park yielded gate returns of €366,727 (55pc of the entire Division 1 gate), underlining how important the 2011 All-Ireland champions were to the financial health of the competition.
Without the Spring Series, the average gate for NFL Division 1 – including the semi-finals and finals – was €23,730, less than half the equivalent in Division 1A of the NHL.
And even when Dublin are included, football's average per game still came in €17,676 lower than hurling.
The championship figures also support the view that hurling is under-represented on the fixtures programme and that it would attract much higher attendances if a more imaginative structure were in place to satisfy public interest in watching the leading counties.
Unlike football, where the standard differential between top and bottom is relatively narrow, hurling has a wide divergence.
All the power is centred on the top 12, but the gate receipts show that public interest at that level outweighs its football counterpart. That's most evident in the All-Ireland qualifiers, where hurling returned a much higher average gate, albeit off fewer games, than football.
Its popularity is perhaps best illustrated by figures from the final stages of the qualifiers in a comparison between Round 4 in football and Phases 2 and 3 in hurling.
The total yield from the four football qualifiers last year was €285,926, compared with €515,069 for the same number of hurling games. That's a massive difference for games at the same stage of the championships in either code.
Nor did it stop there. The All-Ireland hurling championships yielded a mere €284,000 less than football from a total return of €21.6m last year. And while hurling was boosted by a €2.6m haul from the Galway-Kilkenny All-Ireland final replay, the average gate without that bonanza was still considerably higher than football.
Given that Dublin – by far the biggest crowd pullers in football – reached the All-Ireland semi-finals, it's quite remarkable that hurling outshone its big-ball counterpart.
However, the most telling figures relate to the leagues, where the lowest gate in NHL Division 1A hurling was €14,500 (Galway v Dublin in Pearse Stadium) while the lowest in Division 1 football was €5,903 (Laois v Armagh in Portlaoise). Only two games fell below the €15,000 mark in 1A hurling, compared with 11 in Division 1 football. It's also notable that the NFL Division 1 semi-finals yielded less than half the gate receipts of the hurling semi-finals.
Given football's relative strength all
the way down the divisions, its overall take was higher than hurling.
However, there were enough solid gate performances in Division 1B of the NHL to suggest that the right pairings will draw the crowds, regardless of the setting. Limerick v Clare outshone several Division 1A games in their 1B opener, while their clash in the final to decide who was promoted took in €92,000, which was ahead of the take for the Division 1 football semi-finals.
Hurling's greater drawing power extended to U-21 level, where the Clare-Kilkenny All-Ireland final took in almost €54,000 more than the Dublin-Roscommon football final.
Naturally, football scores more heavily at the lower end of the scale, with Divisions 2, 3 and 4 taking in €885,000 more than their hurling counterparts.
However, the key issue is the strength of the hurling support at the top end of the market and the controversial question of whether it's being exploited to the maximum.
There's continuing disquiet in Limerick, Offaly, Dublin, Antrim and Wexford over the structure of the league, which has six teams in Divisions 1A and 1B with movement between them on a one-up/one-down basis annually.
It means that four of that five are almost certain to be in the lower group in any given year, thus denying them the opportunity to test themselves against the top six counties.
That will continue to be the case until 2015 at least. However, the latest evidence contained in the GAA's detailed accounts (gates for every league and All-Ireland championship game, plus subsidiary competitions, are itemised) strongly suggests that the public would much prefer eight-strong divisions in order to provide more games at the higher end of the market.