Mounting GAA concern over the decline in attendances
Lack of competitiveness within Leinster inevitably affecting interest in both codes
Thousands of empty seats at the Leinster football final between Dublin and Westmeath which attracted a crowd of less than 40,000 to Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The GAA may have to look at championship structures if attendances are to rise in the future. Feargal McGill, the GAA’s head of games administration and player welfare, also said that the association is “concerned” about declining crowds in Leinster.
“Realistically in terms of attracting higher attendances you’re at the mercy of two things – competitiveness and who’s going well – because the more teams that are competitive the better and you need diversity, a new county coming through,” he said.
“The second thing is that you’re probably at the mercy of the championship structures.
“It’s difficult to see – and we’ve more than 120 years of evidence to go on – how we can revolutionise attendance figures within the current structures.”
One of the problems for the GAA is that it is impossible to micromanage championship draws to the extent that attendances can be optimised.
It is also impossible by definition to foresee the sort of shock results that can impact on attendances, such as one of the big two in Munster football getting beaten and so preventing the Cork-Kerry finals that traditionally attract the biggest crowds.
That happened this year with Tipperary’s historic victory over Cork. There were also problems with the hurling championship, principally the final between Tipperary and Waterford, which was played in Limerick and drew a crowd of just 26,508 – that was 38 per cent down on last year’s final between the same counties in Thurles.
McGill believes that these were not recurring factors and, asked about the fall in attendances in this year’s provincial championships – both Munster and Leinster were 15 per cent down on last year whereas there were marginal changes in Connacht (up) and Ulster (down) – he said that he believed the trend in most provinces was satisfactory but Leinster was experiencing difficulties.
“The trend in the other provinces is okay. Connacht is pretty much where it always is but maybe with a boost from the greater competitiveness and Ulster continues to perform pretty well.
Fewer than 40,000 attended the Leinster football final between Dublin and Westmeath and the domination of the province by Dublin – one defeat in 12 years – is inevitably affecting interest.
“Within Leinster there’s definitely a perception in other counties at the moment that we’re not going to win anything. It’s grand beating the neighbours and you’ll see decent crowds for say, Louth and Meath this year and Westmeath and Offaly but that’s based on local rivalry.”
He also points out that the Leinster hurling championship is in much the same situation with Kilkenny having lost just three matches during the 18 years of Brian Cody’s management – albeit that two of those defeats have been in the past five years.
Historically, Leinster hurling has been contested between Kilkenny and a challenger, the identity of whom has changed through time, and the transplant of Galway to the province has helped to shore up that trend.
“The one thing that has saved the hurling championship as a spectacle is the presence of Galway which wasn’t part of the Leinster for 125 years. That has taken the worst impact away.”
“The first thing you have to look at is that we had to sit down at the beginning of a recession and work out what are we going to do here to maintain attendances. That was the first challenge and I’m not sure we’ve reached the end of it.
“We’re at a point where we’ve a choice to make as an association and it’s not necessarily going to be an easy choice. It’s going to be partially about priorities; just how much more do we want to get from our senior inter-county championships? Or are they the cream on the top of the cake and it’s the cake that needs more attention.
“The important point for us as an association is that I really think we’ve reached a stage where we don’t have the luxury of looking at the senior championship and saying, ‘let’s adjust the structures to maximise attendance’. I think we’ve reached the stage where that can only be addressed in a more holistic way in terms of the overall direction we want for the association and a vision of where we want to be in 20 or 30 years’ time. Things like championship structures have to be dealt with in that broader context.”