Women’s sport worthy of being served up on own menu

Promoting games as ‘curtain-raisers’ to men’s matches is plainly not fit for purpose

Cora Staunton of Mayo and Dublin’s Fiona Hudson during the Senior Ladies National Football League game at Croke Park last Sunday. Photograph: Gary Carr/ Inpho.

Cora Staunton of Mayo and Dublin’s Fiona Hudson during the Senior Ladies National Football League game at Croke Park last Sunday. Photograph: Gary Carr/ Inpho.

 

It was back in the dim and distant past of 2003 that Kilkenny and Tipperary played out an epic National League hurling final on a bank holiday Monday at Croke Park, Kilkenny coming from eight points down to win by 5-14 to 5-13.

A fella by the name of Henry Shefflin, who went on to have a half decent career, scored the winning point in injury-time.

DJ Carey, need it be said, had a major impact on the game too. But meeting him a few days later, while his joy over having added another winner’s medal to his collection was evident, the size of the crowd had taken some of the shine off the day.

What you’re left with are optics that are just plain awful, and an experience that can hardly be an enjoyable one of the players, a game being played in front of thousands upon thousands of empty seats, with hardly a sinner on Hill 16, the contest given all the feel and atmosphere of an exhibition game or a pre-match kick-about by a bunch of kids who won a competition

Just 17,000 turned up for the final, paltry even by National League standards, Carey commenting that while there was nothing more thrilling than playing in a packed Croke Park, there was little more deflating than playing in a half empty one. Or, in this case, close to four fifths empty.

And there is always something dispiriting, even ghostly, about cavernous stadiums with deserted stands and the shouts of the players on the pitch echoing about the place.

Watching the women of Dublin and Mayo playing in Croke Park last Saturday evening, over the shoulder of the Eir Sport panel previewing the men’s game between Dublin and Roscommon which was to follow, it looked like there were barely 17 people in attendance, never mind a thousand times that. And it made you wonder about the argument that the best way to promote the women’s game is by having some of its bigger fixtures act as “curtain-raisers” to men’s games.

Strongly held view

It’s a strongly held view too, across several sports. Cora Staunton, for one, expressing it again in the build-up to Saturday’s game. Remarkably, the Mayo woman – whose second home, you’d imagine, should be Croke Park – hadn’t played at the stadium since 2008, so even aside from any potential promotional value to the game, she was just elated to get another chance to grace the turf.

The theory, then, is that the curtain-raiser route is the speediest way to a bigger audience, one that might never before have considered going along to a “stand-alone” women’s game because they’d hadn’t been exposed to one.

Show them how good the football can be, when they’re part of a captive audience, and they might just change their mind.

But if the vast majority of them are only arriving at the ground 10 minutes before the “main event”, just in time to see the women departing the scene, the captive audience theory looks a little ropey.

What you’re left with are optics that are just plain awful, and an experience that can hardly be an enjoyable one of the players, a game being played in front of thousands upon thousands of empty seats, with hardly a sinner on Hill 16, the contest given all the feel and atmosphere of an exhibition game or a pre-match kick-about by a bunch of kids who won a competition.

The Irish women’s rugby team had a similar experience in 2014 when they played in more of a curtain-closer than a raiser at the Aviva Stadium, their Six Nations game against Italy taking place after the men’s game between the same nations.

By the time the women kicked off, the bulk of the 50,000 crowd had drifted away. Like the Dublin v Mayo game, it wasn’t even televised, so it was hard to see the purpose of the venture.

While the rugby double-header was largely viewed as good news for women’s rugby, not all of the players felt the same, some of them wishing they could have played the game in the more familiar surroundings of Ashbourne where they had created their own unique atmosphere, playing in front of their own loyal supporters, since first using the ground five years before.

No captive audiences

And the growth in their following there was organic, no captive audiences required. Their first fixture at Ashbourne attracted a crowd of a mere 300, that figure growing to 4,500 by the time they played France there in 2013.

“I just remember it being absolutely wedged,” said Nora Stapleton of that night, “there were people everywhere around the ground.”

When they played England for the Grand Slam in Donnybrook earlier this month, 6,105 turned up, creating a cracking atmosphere – 6,105 at the Aviva would have made it feel funereal.

There aren’t too many sports in Ireland that aren’t struggling to draw in big crowds and, as ever, in many codes, women’s sport struggles more than most. But in All-Ireland final terms, at least, like the rugby, the growth in women’s football attendances has been encouraging, more than doubling in five years to 34,000 last September.

And the camogie final attendance topped the 20,000 mark for the first time since 2009. Again, organic growth, no captive audiences needed, no doubt assisted by the increasing quality of the games and the television coverage, which, as ever, is crucial.

If as many people turned up at women’s games as complain about the attendances, things would be considerably better.

Meantime you wonder about the wisdom of pushing for curtain-raisers when games are reduced to the standing of a starter before the main course. The majority of the diners turning up as the starter is being cleared from the table.

Better, maybe, to keep on encouraging those who bemoan these attendances to pack out the likes of Parnell Park and Donnybrook instead. When they fill up, then we can start thinking about bigger stages.

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