Gaelic GamesTipping Point

Championship season feels broken as hurling hurtles by and football fumbles along

The changes made to the championships in recent years have put the unique feeling of the GAA summer under stress

Wexford's Lee Chin signs hurls for young fans after a seismic win over Galway – the hurling championship starts too early and ends too early, while football has its own problem. Photograph: Leah Scholes/Inpho

For the last couple of years RTÉ have had the same TV ad to promote their coverage of the GAA championships. It is short and catchy and sweet, like a pop song. Familiar images and sounds are spliced together, from fluttering county flags to clicking turnstiles, to ice cream cones, to fans on trains, to feverish celebrations, all signed off by the antique brass of The Sunday Game’s signature tune.

If you listen carefully to the layered audio there is a short riff of Marty Morrissey commentary from the opening weekend of a championship gone by. “We love the championship so much,” he says, “we’re all back for more.”

The purpose of the ad is to amplify a mood. So much about sport now is transactional and coarse and gaudy and exploitative that Gaelic games still has a claim on otherness. That it is still soulful in some way.

At the heart of that is the championship. GAA activity runs for 12 months of the year now and there is a sliding scale of other competitions that fill the calendar without moving the needle on the GAA’s emotional register. At every level of Gaelic games, the championship suppresses the importance of every other competition.


At intercounty level, all of that is magnified. The championship occupies a place in the life of the nation that has no peer in other sports. The Irish rugby team commands massive television audiences now and for Leinster to bring over 80,000 supporters to Croke Park on Saturday was an extraordinary feat of market penetration.

The difference with the championship is that it reaches every corner of the island. It is not the glorious outcome of brand management. It has deep roots and established traditions and old enmities and a long memory. Nothing is forgotten. Memory is the ingredient that binds the sauce.

Waterford's Calum Lyons scores a point during the Munster SHC match against Tipperary at Walsh Park. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

The RTÉ ad about the championship is cleverly designed to hit a certain frequency because, above all else, the championship is a feeling. It is the indeterminate sum of a million small things: tickets, traffic, parking, pubs, grub, grumbling, tension, tantrums, never-going-again, up, down, next day. Next year. The resilience of that feeling has energised the championship for generations. It is the oldest recorded feeling in Irish sport.

But it cannot be taken for granted. You cannot simply throw the ball in and assume the feeling will be there. The changes that have been made to the championship in the last couple of years, and the plastic surgery that has been performed on the GAA calendar, has put that feeling under stress. Without that feeling, the championship is just another branch of the sports entertainment industry. Can you think of a greater violation?

Has the feeling been there for the last month? Everywhere? No.

This is the problem. You cannot tell people how they should feel. The GAA cannot roll out weeks of sugar-free, salt-free, gluten-free provincial football matches and expect its audience to be licking its lips. Many tens of thousands of GAA followers have decided that, contrary to the fixture list, and the constipated hype, the football championship has, in fact, not started yet. It might start at the round-robin phase, but, in year two of the new system, that is already starting to feel like a soft launch.

A fortnight ago, the Clare v Limerick Munster hurling championship match captured a peak viewership of 436,000, and a hugely impressive audience share of 54 per cent. More than half of the people in the country watching TV at that time were glued to a cut-throat, consequential hurling match.

When the Mayo v Roscommon championship-shandy was served up immediately afterwards, however, the audience share dropped below 30 per cent and the peak viewership was less than 239,000. After that match Kevin McStay was asked about the poor turnout of Mayo supporters and he assured everyone they would be back for the final. But isn’t Mayo versus Roscommon on the heritage list of rivalries that helps justify the continued existence of the provincial football championships?

I went to the Kerry-Cork game in Killarney as a spectator with my son, another match from the heritage list. Mid-afternoon on a Saturday is the opposite of prime time in the GAA’s scheduling but it was a beautiful day and about 17,000 people turned up.

Cork's Ruairí Deane is challenged by Stephen O’Brien of Kerry in the Munster SFC semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The football was engaging for about an hour, there was good banter on the terrace and everything about it was perfectly pleasant. But it didn’t feel like championship. Nobody was elated, nobody was gutted. It was like going to the cinema.

The descent of the Leinster football championship into palliative care continues to pollute the early weeks of the season. Blockbuster duels in Ulster are still generating a buzz and the Connacht final yesterday was terrific, but these exceptions cannot erase the preponderance of dud matches over the last month.

Under RTÉ’s latest broadcast deal with the GAA, however, all four provincial finals must be broadcast live which is an abominable mis-use of prime time GAA slots. At most, two should be shown – on editorial merit. Meanwhile, two earthquaking hurling games were behind a paywall on Saturday. How is that helping the buzz?

The hurling championship has a different problem: far too much is happening, far too quickly. In football, no county can be eliminated until early June, either from the Sam Maguire or the Tailteann Cup. Half of the hurling teams will be gone by then, some of them eliminated in the next couple of weeks. That is plainly crazy.

When the club championships resume in late July and August a similar dynamic will play out. Round-robin groups will be run off over the course of a hectic few weeks, and having waited seven or eight months to play a meaningful match, many clubs will lose championship games on successive weekends, effectively ending their season.

The split season was an imperfect solution to an intractable problem. As time goes by the problem feels more intractable and the solution feels more imperfect. The reformed football championship felt radical when it was introduced, but it is clear now that it wasn’t nearly radical enough.

The hurling championship starts too early and finishes too early. There is not nearly enough time for matches to sit and breathe. Looking back and looking forward have always been fundamental to the championship experience. That is under siege too.

The GAA season feels more broken than ever. That is a horrible feeling.