Wednesday 22 November 2017

GAA's aggressive marketing

As Croke Park promote their games ahead of a competitive summer they must be careful not to dilute the physical elements at the centre of the drama, writes Colm Keys

Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, in action against John O'Keeffe, Tipperary. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kilkenny v Tipperary, Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, in action against John O'Keeffe, Tipperary. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kilkenny v Tipperary, Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

On Tuesday night last in the impressively constructed Titanic Suite in the equally impressively regenerated Titanic quarter in the heartland of Belfast's docklands, the first shots in the GAA's summer marketing war were fired.

Merging at the top of the replica stairs made famous in the James Cameron-directed film of the same name, some of the protagonists in the forthcoming Ulster football championship made the ascent to the blaring music that got proceedings under way for the night.

As presentations of these launches go it was a notch or two up on what is the norm, an indicator that the various GAA units are preparing to roll up their sleeves and deliver whatever marketing thrust they can.

But the greatest marketing tool remains the games themselves. Potentially good games and big occasions will inevitably draw crowds.

Whenever the hurling championship is being launched it won't be hard to package together the best moments of the last three years for an action montage.

Essentially, they will come from the same teams on the same stage in the same month.

The 2011 All-Ireland hurling final may not have climbed to the same heights, but its two predecessors are rightly regarded as two of the best finals ever played, if not the best.

The 2009 Kilkenny-Tipperary clash had everything that a spectator and a TV viewer wanted: drama, end-to-end action, cut and thrust and yes, a liberal approach from match referee Diarmuid Kirwan.

That the following year could mirror it and even surpass it reflected the great rivalry developing between Kilkenny and Tipp but also how, with the right conditions and the right approach, hurling could be played.

Football people watching those games yearned for a similar approach to their game.

It was against that background on Tuesday that Brian Cody aired his most recent fears for the game of hurling and the threat of dilution of physicality as he sees it.

"Everybody raved about the All-Ireland finals for the past three or four years, about the quality of the games. The referee was a fundamental part of that," said Cody.

"Where you could begin to have a problem with the kind of games those were I don't know.

"But that's just my opinion. My opinion is right for me, it's not right for everybody necessarily."

The thing is that Cody's opinion is right for a lot of people. Beyond those who play, manage, referee, analyse, scrutinise and assess from the stands, most people liked what they saw in those All-Ireland finals.

conformed

Not every action from a player or every response from a referee to that action on those days conformed with the rule book. Should Tommy Walsh's hurl that caught Brian Gavin on the nose have been treated so lightly, for instance?

But the argument that such a laissez faire approach is suiting Kilkenny is wearing a little thin at this stage. It's been said for the best part of a decade now and certainly since the middle of the 2000s when they re-established control and haven't relinquished it.

Back in 2007, Ger Loughnane raised it most audibly in a radio interview broadcast on the eve of the All-Ireland final against Limerick when he spoke of Kilkenny "playing on the edge".

Kilkenny's style may have advanced the physical evolution of the game, but opponents have had plenty of time to catch up and match it since then. With one obvious exception, that hasn't happened.

Last Tuesday may have been calculated riposte from the game's most successful manager in the wake of Davy Fitzgerald's outburst. There may even have been an element of protectionism in it.

But it was more likely a genuine concern for the game itself, a response to a question about elements of the game, if any, that he would change. There was no animation. There was no hint that he was seeking a little edge for his team ahead of the weekend action.

As ever, he focused his most emotive remarks on the process of assessment which he blames for the approach referees take to games, especially in the league when they are pitching for championship action.

For their part, the GAA are adamant that the assessment of referees is not a stick with which to beat refs into line with and classify them in any way.

Croke Park's referees co-ordinator Pat Doherty stressed yesterday that assessment was a process they were "relatively" happy with and was used primarily for feedback for a referee's benefit.

"It is there to improve their performance. It is a feedback system. We would refute any suggestion that it is placing any undue pressure on a referee," said Doherty.

But sometimes the assessment can be more than a little heavy handed. When referee Cormac Reilly had points deducted last year because one of his umpires was wearing a cap, the others weren't. It was like the NCT penalising a motorist for having an item in the boot of a car.

Perhaps Cody has a point. At a time when the GAA are aggressively attempting to market the games in an attempt to get more people attending, maybe it is time to judge what people want to see most.

If the All-Ireland finals of the last three years are the yardstick for enjoyment and liberal refereeing was part of that, then maybe Cody isn't singing off his own hymn sheet after all.

Irish Independent

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