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.

Last season Dublin were football champions and defeated finalists Kerry provided the opposition. More significantly Kildare faced Tyrone, who as usual brought good support. In fairness to Cork, allowing for their footballers’ less than intrepid following, and Donegal supporters at the weekend, neither are exactly strangers to Croke Park in recent times and as a result long-haul journeys on winter nights have limited appeal.

The bottom line though remains, as stated by Dublin chief executive John Costello, that the turnout, which was in line with expectation, was certainly better – by a significant multiple – than would have turned up in Parnell Park and Newbridge.

From a promotional point of view the sight of a predominantly empty stadium doesn’t look great on television but that’s the problem with having only an 82,000 capacity venue in which to organise these events. This underlines the desirability, as first drawn attention to in those balmy pre-bust days by the 2002 Strategic Review Committee, for the GAA ideally to have – or have access to – a 40,000 to 50,000-capacity ground in the city.

It’s unfortunate that Dublin’s next match against Kerry has to clash with a high-profile rugby international but that’s force of circumstances given Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s club involvement in Finuge’s All-Ireland junior final on Saturday. Normally speaking neither county would have objected to a Saturday night fixture.

There is an argument that the GAA should stand its ground and forge ahead with its fixtures and in some counties that won’t cause much difficulty but realism demands that the modern environment be taken into account. This used never happen previously simply because rugby never had Sunday internationals until the professional era.

Ten years ago the GAA moved an entire programme of league matches in order not to clash with the Ireland-England Grand Slam decider. The logic operating on that occasion bears observance even when the stakes aren’t so high.

It wasn’t entirely unforeseeable that Kerry would end up with this weekend’s problem when the league fixtures were finalised and if the GAA want to optimise the league’s status they need to anticipate such situations. As it is, a much-anticipated big fixture is being somewhat thrown away.

Finally in an era when players’ interests are more carefully guarded, Saturday evening matches better serve that purpose and give teams a day off before the working week begins. There is some resistance among hurling supporters, who still prefer traditional Sunday afternoon matches but football is generally more marketable on Saturdays.

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