Return of big crowds to GAA games not a given says sports economics expert

Pandemic-related restrictions on spectators could impact on the GAA in future

Spectators on their way in to Croke Park to watch the Connacht final between Galway and Mayo on Sunday. Photograph: Alan Betson

Spectators on their way in to Croke Park to watch the Connacht final between Galway and Mayo on Sunday. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Croke Park hosted its biggest attendance at a sporting event in 17 months on Sunday with the Connacht final drawing in around 16,000. It was the closest that the stadium had got to the Government authorised limit of 18,000 in the past couple of weeks.

The underwhelming demand for events has been noted within the association. It can be ascribed to different factors: the organisation of seating into pods of two, three, four and five, which have to all sell out if the capacity is to achieved.

Leinster Council have also reported hesitancy, especially among older patrons, about attending in the current circumstances of rising Covid rates.

Last October, Dr John Considine of UCC, who is a specialist in sports economics, as well as an All-Ireland hurling medallist and an experienced coach, told The Irish Times that he was concerned that the pandemic-related restrictions on spectators could impact on the GAA in future.

Speaking about the recent evidence of reluctance among supporters, he said that his concerns had sharpened with the public health situation influencing a second season, especially with the widespread availability of matches on terrestrial and subscription channels, as well as streaming.

“I’m just wondering how is this going to impact if people say. ‘I’m going to be able to get see it anyway so I’ll pick and choose and go home to watch it’. How will that affect attendances because there is a money issue?”

Within the GAA there is an acceptance that unease exists among spectators but Considine also believes that the importance of the fixtures is another influence. Mayo-Galway was the most attractive match to be staged in Croke Park this summer so its large attendance isn’t surprising.

How does this impact on the less box-office intercounty matches, Considine wonders.

“You now have another year of people not going to games – maybe that sharpens the hunger initially but you wonder what will happen in the longer run. Are kids not going to go? People believe that there is an ageing of the audience anyway – the spectators.”

This has been pronounced this year, as the limited capacities have meant no concession tickets for children. The GAA had in recent years developed a good number of promotional packages for the many matches that won’t sell out but such initiatives aren’t feasible in current circumstances.

Croke Park officials also point out that society hasn’t opened up fully yet, which has a big impact on match going. Things like public transport aren’t as widely available and regular, matchday routines like having lunch or pints, before and afterwards, aren’t possible at present.

Last autumn, Considine outlined the potential dangers.

“The evidence on people who attend games, studies show, is that those who were brought to matches by their parents when they were younger tend to be those who attend later. There’s a follow-through. Break that chain for maybe two or three years that’s a whole cohort that hasn’t acquired that identifiable experience of going to games.

“That includes enjoying the spin, enjoying the stop-off coming back for a bag of chips.”

He now renews that warning.

“Things like this do have an impact beyond the obvious. Diarmuid O’Donovan, who was county administrator in Cork and worked with the Echo prior to that, was telling me that the GAA made its biggest inroads into the city over 100 years ago when soccer was in abeyance with people fighting in the first World War.

“The GAA made progress at that time, which was never really reversed. A break in practice or routine happens and people start thinking, ‘do I really need to go back?’ I’m hoping this year goes well but it will be next year before we see what’s going to happen.

“It’s hard to evaluate properly but I’d say the impact on revenues, sponsorship and so on is starting to bite. Last year people were hoping to get through 2020 and maybe it would be fine. This year has been an added burden.”

The GAA is aware of this danger.

“Of course it’s a concern,” according to one source, “but to be honest we just don’t know. Hopefully the 2022 calendar year will return to normality but until then we just can’t say.”

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