Monday 11 December 2017

GAA's jaded format will drive players and fans away

The sports survey published last week by Pembroke Communications must make slightly alarming reading for the GAA.

The survey of men and women was based on a sample of 600 and covered their favourite sports, greatest sporting achievements of 2009 and the best known sports personalities. And the GAA does not fare well on any front.

The sample may be a bit small but with 80 per cent of that group declaring an interest in sport, it seems accurate enough. The big story is that Gaelic football only comes third behind rugby and soccer in people's chosen sport for 2009, 25 per cent putting rugby forward as their favourite followed by soccer at 23 per cent and football at 22 per cent. Of course, by adding in hurling (nine per cent) the GAA is still the biggest.

In itself, that low figure for hurling must be alarming. There are very many who preach loudly about hurling being the greatest game in the world, yet it is falling on a lot of deaf ears if these figures are to be believed. Talk about international promotion and even getting the game into the Olympics would look a bit premature when it has such a low following in Ireland. A lot of hard work is needed to convince people about its merits before taking on the world.

Perhaps the scarcity of serious competition at county level does not help, but these figures should shake a lot of officials out of their comfort zone to make some radical moves to increase hurling's profile.

Doing something about meaningless provincial competitions is the place to start. If ever a game was suited to a Champions League type set-up, then it is hurling. With only a handful of real teams, the format of the championship is the key to promotion. Or maybe it is time to detatch hurling completely as the argument, from most hurling enthusiasts, is that it is being suffocated by football. Whatever else, it is time for some new thinking and a lot of hard work.

In terms of top sporting achievements, Kilkenny winning the four-in-a-row only comes in third behind two rugby events: the Grand Slam and Leinster winning the Heineken Cup. While Henry Shefflin only ranks sixth in terms of sports stars. Hard to credit that a GAA player only gets five per cent in this category with Brian O'Driscoll on 35 per cent.

It is difficult for the GAA to compete against international competition, but the success of the Heineken Cup is an example of what good marketing can achieve. The creation of a loyal following can only be achieved in GAA terms by replicating what rugby has done. This is to give counties at least five home games in the summer when county boards with a bit of initiative could promote them heavily. It is obvious too that Saturday evening games are the way forward and even the odd midweek match under lights between neighbouring counties will draw good crowds.

When was the last time that the GAA in a county went about promoting a home game? Were primary schools ever flooded with tickets? Were there ever novelty events on the pitch at half-time? Were sponsors and prospective sponsors ever invited to a reception before a game? Have supporters' clubs ever had a chance to have a function before a game to raise funds? The reason why none of this is possible is because counties rarely have a home game at the right time of the year, but the way forward is to copy the rugby model and improve on it.

In reality, the GAA still has huge advantages over rugby, which has not penetrated much of rural Ireland. This year has been an exception and they won't enjoy high-profile Grand Slam and Heineken Cup wins every year. But sports with an international dimension always have something coming along to raise their profile and it is not enough for the GAA to sit back and hope traditional loyalties will hold. The fact is that they won't.

Young people like to see exciting games and take part in well-organised games. For the most part the GAA fails on both counts.

The All-Ireland championships are now a bit of a turn-off with the absolute dominance of Kilkenny and, slightly less so, Kerry. What we need are lots of new teams coming along to bring a bit of excitement to other parts of the country and the GAA at central level will be hoping that somebody other than the big two wins next year.

Yet a trip down to your local bookie's shop will tell you what they think of next year's championship. Another Kilkenny-Kerry double is top of the list. Paddy Power don't make too many mistakes, that is why they announced a major expansion of employment last week.

So instead of sitting back and waiting for something to happen, the GAA should be proactive in responding to these figures. The old dog must learn new tricks. Greater TV exposure with a live Sunday Game type show on RTE for league matches and club finals in various counties would be a start. When I bring this up I get beaten about the head by TG4 as they play a leading role in promotion at this time of the year. But you know what I mean and it is no disrespect to TG4.

Competition with soccer was always a fact of life for the GAA. It is a battle which was largely lost in much of Dublin, but the emergence of rugby as a big player is of greater concern. The GAA as an organisation has been much quicker to respond at underage level with great work in primary schools, summer camps and various types of small-sided games. However, the shop front as displayed by the inter-county scene is well worn and has none of the flexibility of the underage sector.

The old saying about American sports stadiums was to build them and they would come. It marked a confidence in their games. It was always the GAA attitude too. It did not work for 2009 as these figures show, even if attendances held up remarkably well. It would appear the public perception is of a jaded product and players who do not make an impact.

Time to change the circus routine and if the Dubs could win the All-Ireland, then that would be a real bonus too.

Sunday Independent

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