Seán Moran: Moving Dublin out of Croke Park wouldn't work
The GAA are prioritising attendances over competitive fairness – why does it continue?
If Dublin as expected win Leinster they will they will have two home matches in the football round-robin, as opposed to one for the other counties
The marketing element of the GAA’s championship structure has become increasingly important. It was at the heart of the original idea over 20 years ago to allow defeated Munster and Leinster finalists back into All-Ireland hurling contention.
For all the claims that the structure and the subsequent qualifiers were meant to help “weaker counties”, they weren’t; they were intended to provide additional matches for everyone and a more extensive programme of big occasions.
Remember, by 1996 All-Ireland hurling semi-finals were being played on a double bill rather than as stand-alone fixtures and quarter-finals had been only necessary to untangle the likes of London and whoever was B champions from the body of the championship.
When the economic depression hit nearly 10 years ago, the GAA determined that its marketing position would be to maximise live attendances – by strategies such as improving the value of ticket packages for individuals, families and clubs. Largely it worked. Crowds fell, compared with the halcyon days of the new Croke Park from 2002-05, but not by as much as had been feared.
Championship gate receipts are important to everyone. They’re the main revenue stream for the GAA nationally – 52 per cent (€34 million) of Central Council’s income – and at provincial level. Attendance levels are also important in that they, together with broadcast audiences, underpin commercial revenue.
There is though, more to marketing than simply getting in crowds and taking in revenue. This point is often raised when discussing the desirability of making Dublin play competitive matches outside of Croke Park.
Wicklow manager John Evans is undoubtedly correct that it would greatly benefit the game in the county to have the All-Ireland champions coming to Aughrim as a follow-up to the home county’s first championship win in five years.
Having been present in the venue for the famous visit of eventual All-Ireland champions Galway in the first year of the qualifiers in 2001, I remember the atmosphere and excitement generated by 6,500 spectators. A year later Wicklow were refused permission to host Kerry and the match was switched to Portlaoise where 1,300 mournfully clicked through the turnstiles.
Ironically the value to a less successful county of hosting big summer matches is recognised in the qualifiers if not in the championships.
The argument was made by former Director General Páraic Duffy in the very document that advocated the new football championship system.
“The traditionally less strong counties will be favoured,” he wrote, “by their being granted home-venue advantage in rounds one, two and three of the qualifiers. This will represent (my italics) a significant benefit and encouragement to these counties and will provide them with attractive home fixtures.”
The problem is that the provincial councils and Croke Park depend, as illustrated above, on revenues from championship. This makes optimising the revenue from Dublin all the more important. It was only reluctantly that Leinster started to play one of Dublin’s matches outside of Croke Park in the past couple of years.
This was simply because that’s how the counties – aside, generally, from whoever was due to play Dublin in the opening round of the championship – wanted it. Reduce the revenue and you reduce the outgoings, grants and other funding. It is valid to argue that this is prioritising money over competitive fairness but the counties involved have to make their voices heard on the matter.
In fact they made their voices heard to the contrary by deciding last year that Dublin would only play provincial football championship matches in four venues: Croke Park, Portlaoise, Tullamore and Kilkenny.
The bottom line consideration appears to be that the senior intercounty championships are there to resource GAA activity in the counties and not vice versa.
Two home matches
There is likely to be similar unhappiness when the football round-robin comes into effect in July. The three matches in each quarter-final group are already fixed in rule: provincial champions play each other in Croke Park and then have one home – venues will though have to be vetted by the GAA’s Safety and Infrastructure committees – and one away match.
If Dublin as expected win Leinster they will be in a group with the Ulster champions and two qualifiers. Given that it is certain they will play their home fixture in Croke Park, this means that they will have two home matches.
The GAA is emphatic in pointing out that there was no undertaking to provide a neutral venue for one of the round-robin matches. The proposal that was approved by congress clearly stated that there would be a “Croke Park” round, not a neutral round.
There is the additional complication that the provincial champions in Dublin’s group may not wish to move their only scheduled fixture in Croke Park before the semi-finals. Anecdotally, that was the reaction when opinion was informally sought in two counties that have no current shortage of provincial titles.
Whereas it is conceded that Croke Park is Dublin’s home venue – the veil has been fully lifted on that since the county started playing league matches there again seven years ago – there is also the belief that teams have to grow accustomed to playing and winning there regardless of Dublin.
It was also pointed out that if opponents come through the qualifiers they have a chance of playing Dublin at home.
It is open to counties to vary the rules on this and insist for instance that Dublin travel beyond Croke Park for two of their round-robin matches – but how great is the desire to do so?