Is the love affair with the hurling league over?
Dwindling gates show NHL has lost its lustre since glory days of late 90s, writes Colm Keys
Collectively they have more than two thirds of the All-Ireland hurling titles on offer. Between them hurling's trinity of power - Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary - have been champions in 88 out of 123 championships played.
Their dominance of the National Hurling League has been slightly more understated, but 47 titles from 77 campaigns between them since 1925 still represents a fair haul.
Yet on Sunday at three venues that could be considered the provincial citadels of hurling, less than 11,000 turned up in total to see these counties in action in the Allianz League.
To the cavernous sound of empty terraces at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork, Semple Stadium in Thurles and Nowlan Park in Kilkenny, there were just 10,851 paying customers to watch the home teams grind out victories. All three venues were less than 10pc full.
The figures must be worrying for the GAA, who have put considerable effort into promoting the games this season through a variety of measures. Admission prices have been reduced from €15 to €13, season tickets have been put on offer once again to all of the counties.
But so far the supporters just have not bothered to come out.
There are many smaller factors contributing to the indifference on those terraces and stands. The economic woes clearly are having an impact at the turnstiles and at the petrol pumps. But the same slump is not nearly as evident in the football league.
The live and deferred TV games on TG4 don't help attendances, but again the damage is being felt in hurling more than football, it seems.
The weather hasn't really been an issue. True, as the league campaign heads into March and April attendances do traditionally pick up. But from the current base, an average of less than 4,000 per game, that is not going to be hard to build on.
Put simply, the hurling league has lost its appeal. It's become colourless and mundane -- on the sidelines, in the dressing-rooms and in the stands. So far, 12 Division 1 games have been watched by just over 47,000 spectators.
Dare we say it, the absence of controversy and edgy rivalry is sorely missing from the hurling league these days.
Only two years ago, over 16,000 filed into Nowlan Park for the Cork league match in the week when Rebels captain John Gardiner suggested they might have won more titles had they been organised properly. This apparently went down badly in Kilkenny and the crowds flocked to see retribution being executed. But it was the exception, not the rule.
It's a far cry now from the pioneering days of the same-calendar-year league campaign of the late 1990s, when Limerick and Clare routinely attracted in excess of 20,000, a Limerick versus Tipperary match drew 17,000 and a Kilkenny versus Waterford game had to be delayed by 15 minute to allow a four-mile tailback out the Waterford road to clear.
Hurling was a different landscape then. Clare were in their prime as the reigning All-Ireland champions when the league really hit overdrive in 1998.
Twelve months earlier in 1997, it was played off in the same calendar year for the first time, but the semi-finals and finals were deferred until after the championship and, consequently, it lost momentum.
The buoyancy of Wexford, Limerick, Clare and Offaly back then really drew the crowds, but with the restoration of the old order over the last decade, the figures attending league games and the general interest in it have waned.
Pairc Ui Chaoimh has never traditionally been a magnet for Cork supporters in the league, thus there were just 2,866 supporters for their repeat of the 2010 league final last Sunday.
However, that's more than double the attendance of the Cork/Offaly match at the same venue on the opening day of the league. So just a paltry 4,272 have watched Cork's two home league games.
Nowlan Park isn't much better, drawing 5,471 to the Cork game two weeks ago but just over 3,000 last weekend for the visit of Wexford.
Tipperary's home matches have been faring a little better but not much -- certainly not reflecting their status as All-Ireland champions.
All three of their games have been played under lights, but in their two home matches, they drew 9,465 for the opening night against Kilkenny and just 4,947 last weekend against Waterford.
Former Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy made the point on RTE's 'League Sunday' that hurling just wasn't a game for lights and that attendances may be reflecting that.
It's a widely held view among hurling people. But that doesn't reconcile with the crowds that flooded into the same Semple Stadium last September to watch the locals deliver an exhibition and add the All-Ireland U-21 title to the senior title claimed just six days earlier.
Admittedly, the place was full of jubilant Tipperary supporters on a high after ending Kilkenny's five-in-a-row aspirations.
They would have travelled to a darkened Semple Stadium that night in honour of their next generation.
Tipperary's PRO Ger Ryan points out that 6,500 attended the Tipperary/Waterford game 12 months ago when it was played in Semple Stadium on a Sunday afternoon.
That represents a decrease of over 25pc to this year.
"Our board haven't discussed this collectively, but privately there would be a feeling that Sunday would be better for attendances," said Ryan.
"It must be remembered that our packages are geared towards families and there may be a reluctance for families to travel on cold Saturday nights."
Putting the start date back to March may be a consideration, something that could be accommodated more if the competition returns to two Division 1 groups.
But for now the love affair with league hurling is over -- the light has flickered out.