Lure of the league could be helped by more Saturday night lights
ON GAELIC GAMES:And so, the league. The most encumbered sports competition in the world hit the road on Saturday night and the journey towards summer and autumn silverware began with the smallest of steps.
On the face of it this should be a good season. For the first time since the revival of the strictly hierarchical structure the best eight teams are in the top division – the six most recent All-Ireland finalists plus strong-looking challenges from Kildare and Tyrone.
But the league is an enigmatic phenomenon and layered as an onion. Some people dismiss it as a secondary competition; some give out that others depict it as a secondary competition. And sometimes these opposing contentions come from the same source.
Some years ago a competing captain reminded me in private conversation the week before that the upcoming final was but “a secondary target” for the year and then some days later during his acceptance speech rhetorically – but fiercely – demanded of the crowd: “Who says this is a secondary competition?”
Well in a way it has to be, seeing as whatever its virtues – relieving cabin fever for supporters at the start of every year, some good matches, the increasing relevance to the All-Ireland and a stable and committed sponsor in Allianz – it’s still not the championship. It’s a preparatory phase of the season and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But as a preparatory competition the league doesn’t, with minimal exception, overlap the championship. So there is no interleaving of competitions throughout the season. One stops, and the other starts and the second one is more prized.
This time of the year the league is also at the mercy of other activities. The under-21 championship is beginning to get up and running, Sigerson and other third-level competitions are in full flight, as are the club championships’ All-Ireland stages at various grades. These mightn’t constitute major disruption but they divert energies and diffuse attention.
On the plus side, unlike the championship with its random schedule and opening fixtures frequently of little interest to any but the counties concerned, the league can plan “gala opening nights” with appropriate promotion (so enthusiastic this year that the opening weekend’s fixtures were still being advertised on radio in the days after they’d taken place).
Dublin’s Spring Series concept, now in its third year, has been successful but to what extent did Saturday suggest a fall-off in appeal with 28,693 in attendance as opposed to Dublin’s opening night home crowds over the past two seasons: 45,836 and 35,028?
Circumstances have to be taken into account. Two years ago the double bill featured the Dublin hurlers, then in Division One and like the footballers taking on the All-Ireland champions.