Man and Ball: league attendance fiasco
12:23, 18 Apr 2012
There is not one catch-all solution to the problem of low attendances but there needs to be more forethought if the GAA wants to attract crowds.....
This has been a touchy subject for a while. One fan, posting on a Kerry message board said: “I’d say they will be lucky if there is a crowd of 8-10,000 there. They should double it up with some other game.” Another added: “It could be a poor attendance given the Munster match is on the same day.”
The supporter wasn’t referring to the weekend’s football league semi finals but to the league final of 2008 before Kerry played Derry at Parnell Park. Munster weren’t playing last Sunday but just over 11,000 turned up to watch a repeat of the 2010 All Ireland final and the meeting of Mayo and Kerry in what turned out to be a thrillingly dramatic encounter that could very well go down as one of the games of the season.
Last Sunday there wasn’t the problem of alternative sporting events drawing potential spectators elsewhere. The Grand National was held the previous day; there was no rugby in the way and the FA Cup semi finals couldn’t be blamed either. It is certainly true to say there is no one reason for the poor attendances and therefore there is no one catch-all solution.
From a practical point of view, the teams involved travelled from three of the four corners of the country involving round trips of several hundred kilometres in each case. It may have made more sense to award the top two sides in the league home advantage. After all, if it is good enough for the championship then maybe it should be considered as an option for next year.
There is an argument, too, that the fixtures fell in the midst of a period of severe public anger over water and household charges. Those latest two impositions alone seemed to crystallise frustration and thousands of people were compelled to descend on the recent conventions of the coalition government parties. All of which serves to constrict even the idea of spending money. And even in the spending of it people are severely hit before they make it to a stadium. A return train ticket from Kerry or Cork to Heuston, for example, costs in excess of €60. There is no need to speculate about the thought process of a family considering making such a trip. In truth, the decision makes itself.
Since that final in 2008, attendances at league finals – semi finals were only back on the calendar this year – have actually risen steadily year on year. In 2009, 20,545 watched Kerry beat Derry in Croke Park. The following year 27,005 watched Cork beat Mayo while, unsurprisingly, that number jumped to 36,348 when Dublin met the Rebels in the decider last year. The last time the semi finals were played at GAA headquarters, in 2007, just over 23,000 turned up. Maybe it is simply a case that supporters see the reinstatement of the semi final fixtures as unnecessarily clogging up the calendar when there wouldn’t be too many dissenting voices if the GAA had decided to leave the system of the last four years untouched.
In addition, with the European Championships and the Olympic games coming up in June and July, respectively, the Association faces a massive challenge to attract people to games. It was surprising to hear that they were supposedly “shocked” at the low attendances last weekend. Surely, though, there was nothing that shocking about it when one considers the array of factors that contributed to it.
We have highlighted here before the competition the GAA faces, particularly from highly-finessed rugby marketing campaigns. Of course, it is not comparing like with like but just over a decade ago no one could have considered that a league game between Munster and Leinster would fill Lansdowne Road. Munster regularly play in front of crowds of 20,000 or more in the PRO12 league which has distinctly fewer selling points than the European Cup. In the cases where lower numbers are anticipated, games against less stellar opposition are moved to the 9,000-plus capacity Musgrave Park in Cork. This season Munster have played four games at the venue and attendances haven’t dipped below 7,000. It would be far more logical if the GAA waited to see who the league semi finalists are than to announce the games would take place at Croke Park. The current system only makes sense if Dublin or, say, Kildare happen to be involved.
If a marketing campaign is to work it must have something to work with in the first place. Despite Ireland qualifying for their first European Championship campaign in 24 years, and after the excitement of the Estonia game had subsided, just over 35,000 turned up for the friendly against Czech Republic. The majority of those in attendance probably wished they hadn’t bothered after the horrible fare that was served up.
In that context, it was interesting to note the words of GAA president Liam O’Neill who said that Gaelic football had become “boring” in the last couple of years. The new man also touched on the aesthetic value that is crucial to getting the punters in. “Central to the playing of games and promotion of games is the specific area of refereeing and discipline. A number of years ago we initiated an in-depth review of the playing infraction penalty system and how we might devise and test a new penalty system with a view to improving discipline on the field and making our games more pleasurable to play and entertaining to watch.”
Indeed, there was more than a whiff of revolution about much of what O’Neill said and it will be interesting to observe the changes he will attempt to enforce. Chief among them will be to address the choosing of venues and the timing of certain games and while there is no magic trick to bump up crowd numbers, a little more forethought wouldn’t go amiss.
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