Learning to play the media game
Something very strange has been happening over the past few days. Ordinary people here are actually getting excited about a game of rugby. For decades most of us have smiled benignly at the sheepskin-jacketed hordes who made the twice-yearly train journey to Dublin for a Five Nations drubbing and wondered just what all the fuss was about. But now - wait for this - there is actually a scramble for one of the 20,000 tickets on sale for Saturday's European Cup semifinal between Ulster and Stade Francais at Ravenhill. We're talking about seismic change here - next thing you know the Artane Boys Band will be providing the pre-match entertainment at Windsor Park.
Just how has this rugby bandwagon begun to roll? Part of the answer is a coupling of the medium and the message that would make 1960s media guru Marshall McLuhan a very happy man. All the ingredients for the media feeding frenzy that is just hitting full stride were there in last month's quarter-final win over Toulouse. An Ulster team whose season looked over just weeks before, French opposition with an imperious record in the competition and, to top it all, the pitter patter of Zak Ward's tiny feet. The print and broadcast media here have always been more than a little pre-disposed to any rugby story - here was one they could pick up and run with.
A case in point is this fantastic creation that is "the Friday night under floodlights at Ravenhill" experience. An interloper from Mars reading the local newspapers and watching local television over the past few months could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a cherished and long-standing tradition on a par with traffic jams at Clones on Ulster final day or single figure attendances at local hockey matches. The reality is somewhat different - Friday night fixtures have only really been hyped up since Ulster beat Toulouse first time around in an epic encounter earlier in the season. The truth should not get in the way of a story as good as this.
So ever since Ulster got their home draw against Stade Francais, teleprompters and television autocues and column inches here have been filled with a clamour for the game to be played under lights on a Friday. Crowd control and safety regulations were the first hurdle the Ulster Branch had to overcome and the response was to install temporary seating to increase Ravenhill's capacity by around 5,000. Somewhere along the line, however, Stade Francais inherited the same sulky attitude that Toulouse had adopted towards their Belfast trip and began lobbying hard for the game to be played in what they imagined would be the less-partisan atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon.
With the English clubs already off in a huff, their French counterparts are the big players in the European Cup and what they want they get. The competition organisers, well aware that the French clubs were calling all the shots, caved into Stade's demands, citing pressure from television companies as a key factor. All of which, of course, has led to a whole swathe of "poor, put-upon Ulster" stories and generated much more prematch publicity. Mission accomplished.
The most fascinating variable in the Ulster equation has been the players. Many have spent the past couple of years getting rich very quickly as rugby's lived wildly beyond its means. More recently, however, a colder wind has been whistling through the sport bringing with it austerity and belt-tightening. All of a sudden that decision not to finish your degree or to give up your fulltime, pensionable job didn't seem so bright after all.
This European Cup run, then, has been a godsend for those same players. They have now accomplished something that at last matches their status as well-rewarded, professional sportsmen. In the process they have become public property and have responded magnificently. There has been an accessibility to both the media and to the rugby public that leaves other codes trailing in rugby's wake.
Everything that has been happening is also testimony to the enduring appeal of international sport. Saturday is not another club game, no matter how important that might be. Nor is it another interprovincial visit by Connacht, Leinster or Munster. Few can fail to be seduced by the extra dimension that inter-country rivalry brings. There is an element of tribalism fuelling the desire to put foreign opposition in their place, but it is a tribalism of a much more innocent variety than we're used to here. There is some mild stereotyping - the current favourite is that "French teams don't travel very well" - but there is nothing particularly nasty or jingoistic about it.
Whatever happens from here on in, this has been a heady period for rugby here. The sport has put down much deeper roots than even its most passionate advocates would have imagined possible just a few months ago. With an ever-willing media always eager to help, many more people now know who David Humphreys and Gary Longwell are and many more now care about what happens to the team they play for. That represents a sea-change.
But will the rising tide lift all boats? With an infrastructure that encompasses a much bigger supporter base and infinitely better facilities, the GAA mandarins must be watching the current "rugby love-in" with a certain degree of bemusement. A huge song and dance is being made about the new ground being broken by having 20,000 people at a rugby match. But the Ulster football championship attracts crowds of that size three or four times every summer, not to mention the mass exoduses to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-finals and final.
There is nothing wrong with the GAA product but there is much to be said about the way in which it is promoted. The pre-match fireworks and entertainment at the last Ravenhill game against Toulouse represented a genuinely innovative touch by Ulster chief executive, Michael Reid, and the rest of the provincial administrators. A little imagination will take you a long way into people's affections.
The GAA must learn how to play the media game. The market place is crowded, so the tactic should be to work more cleverly within it. Instead of chasing the big money contracts that are going to become increasingly outmoded as digital television and proliferation of choice take hold, the GAA should be trying to manoeuvre itself into a more powerful bargaining position. Why should there be two or three big games fighting for the same air-time on Sunday afternoons in mid-summer? Why can't there be floodlit games on Wednesday nights? Why can't there be games fixed for a Saturday evening?
Rugby's willingness to adapt and move forward may have been born out of necessity, but the fruits will be there for all to see next Saturday. It will be a shame if the GAA cannot do the same.