Promotion of elite GAA should not be done at expense of healthy grassroots

Intercounty season can well afford to hand over a few dates to the club game

St Vincent’s Diarmuid Connolly scores a goal against Castlebar Mitchels in the All-Ireland club football final in March 2014, having won the Leinster club title in the previous calendar year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan

St Vincent’s Diarmuid Connolly scores a goal against Castlebar Mitchels in the All-Ireland club football final in March 2014, having won the Leinster club title in the previous calendar year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan

 

There are a few things in the GAA of which it could be said: if you were starting out, you’d never come up with that way of doing it. One example is the All-Ireland club championships and the weird three-month hiatus between provincial and All-Ireland finals.

Viewed objectively, the only surprise about the proposal to re-orientate the club championship to a calendar year is that it took so long.

The proposal from the Fixtures Work Group that was floated at Central Council has the added lock that it’s for a two-year trial period. Assuming it gets that, who’s going to come back in late 2017 and argue to reinstate the old calendar?

There has been an interesting re-think about fixtures in recent times, summed up by the GAA director general Páraic Duffy acknowledging that he had changed his mind on the competing merits of maintaining a high-profile promotional window for Gaelic games during the championship season and condensing the intercounty programme in order to allow clubs to have additional dates in the schedules.

Slippage of one week, bringing forward the All-Ireland finals as proposed by the work group, won’t make a huge difference but in an organisation that often accomplishes reform by the ratchet effect rather than in unanticipated, bold moves, the impact of small changes is more likely to be incremental rather than meaningless.

A colleague made an excellent point during the week about this ‘balance’ between elite, ‘shop window’ events and ordinary, grassroots activity. What, he asked, is being promoted if large television audiences tune in for big matches in September only for the impact of that elite competition to undermine significantly the club game, which is supposed to be at the heart of the GAA?

It would be akin to borrowing hospital generators for a celebrity concert to raise funds for the sick.

Promotion is a tricky business anyway. The GAA’s competition structures are another item that would certainly be designed differently were priority to be given to maximising supporter convenience and commercial potential, but that isn’t the case when it comes to priority.

Commercial revenues The strength of the organisation – lip service aside – is that it provides recreational outlets on a community basis all around the country. Commercial revenues are important and the intercounty championships drive that, but for those purposes the fixture lists haven’t interfered with what has been a steady financial performance throughout the economic depression.

Eyebrows were perhaps raised when the audience figures for sports broadcasts in 2014 were released by RTE within the past fortnight. Neither All-Ireland final made the first two, with the top places going to Ireland’s Six Nations finale in Paris and the World Cup final in Brazil.

But it hasn’t been unusual in recent years for international events to outstrip the All-Irelands’ television ratings; in fact, 2014 was the third year in the past six when it has happened.

The absence of Dublin from the football final also had an impact, as the county has brought in seven-digit audiences in its most recent All-Ireland appearances. The defeat of Kerry four years ago was watched by 1,085,200 and the 2013 win against Mayo 1,064,200 tuned in.

Croke Park sources say that there is no long-term downward trend and there is acceptance that a big international event, particularly with strong Irish involvement, will always draw a big audience.

The upside for the GAA is that such occurrences are by their nature rare. Rugby internationals, for instance, have only twice finished the year ahead of the All-Irelands – last year and the Grand Slam climax in Cardiff in 2009.

International success

England

When former GAA commercial director Dermot Power retired four years ago, he was asked on RTE radio by Marty Morrissey about how big a threat rugby posed to Gaelic games. Power, who has a background in rugby, said that the game was going through a golden age but, realistically, that couldn’t last forever.

Similarly Ireland’s soccer team – which when going well attracts the biggest audiences for television sport – has qualified for international tournaments only sparingly since the Jack Charlton years.

It’s undoubtedly important, especially with the GAA’s multi-sponsor commercial model, to optimise exposure, but there’s little to suggest, either in respect of competition with other sports or the value of its brand, that the association is struggling to maintain its place.

There shouldn’t be any complacency given how quickly and unexpectedly sporting fortunes can change but at present there doesn’t appear to be much valid cause for worry about the effects of trimming back the intercounty season a little in order to bolster what is after all supposed to be the GAA’s core activities. smoran@irishtimes.com

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