Far from the madding crowds of days gone by

What a dire weekend for GAA attendances. Kerry-Mayo in Austin Stack Park was obviously an exception but across the country there was evidence of supporters preferring to do something else with their Bank Holiday weekend.

Who would have thought that of the four Division 1 hurling semi-finals the Limerick-Laois game would have attracted the second biggest crowd?

The estimated 5,000 in O’Moore Park last Saturday week exceeded the 3,503 in Semple Stadium and 2,753 in Walsh Park on Saturday (the Galway double-header in Pearse Stadium attracted 7,643).

There were 1,219 in Páirc Uí Rinn for the visit of Donegal to face Cork’s footballers. It’s estimated the derby of Offaly and Laois barely drew 1,000 in Tullamore.

For the second time this spring, less than 20,000 (19,927) took in a home game of All-Ireland SFC champions Dublin, undermining county secretary John Costello’s claim that the team has a core support of 35,000.

On Sunday, there was another dismal All-Ireland clubs finals crowd, 17,819 following up on last year’s 15,556 (on a day when the games clashed with Ireland’s successful Six Nations Grand Slam attempt).

Both days were generally dry if extremely cold but walk-up crowds on St Patrick’s Day in Dublin simply don’t exist.

March 17 on a weekend doesn’t work so well either. The last time St Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday was 2013 when 28,928 showed up for St Brigid’s-Ballymun Kickhams and St Thomas’-Kilcormac-Killoughey.

The year before, when it fell on a Saturday, 25,412 were in attendance for Crossmaglen-Garrycastle and Loughgiel Shamrocks-Coolderry. Those numbers were down a few thousand on when the games have been played on weekdays earlier in the decade.

In the last 10 years, the five times the crowd has exceeded the 30,000 figure Dublin clubs have been involved on four occasions: Kilmacud Crokes (2009), St Vincent’s (‘14), Ballyboden St Enda’s (‘16) and Cuala (‘17). A fine 34,357 took in the 2010 senior finals when St Gall’s involvement in the football and the promise of a classic hurling final between heavyweights Ballyhale Shamrocks and Portumna would have piqued interest.

The involvement of Ulster clubs in the football finals has always added to gate receipts but their absence and Dublin teams from the decider these last couple of years have been sorely missed by the GAA’s accounting department. Much in the way when Ulster, the most fulsome of supporters of the erstwhile Railway Cup, weren’t involved in the inter provincial football final or Dublin are poorly or not represented at all in the International Rules squad, general interest tends to wane.

The GAA can’t be faulted for trying to get a crowd in. Since 2012, the price of a season ticket has included entry to the All-Ireland senior, intermediate and junior finals. AIB’s marketing is strong too but there’s only so much that can be done in such a jam-packed period of the year.

A move to a 13-month season whereby all the All-Ireland clubs finals are played in early January is what the GAA’s national fixtures analysts committee revealed at Congress last month.

It makes considerable sense notwithstanding the rapidly declining March 17 attendance figures. That being said, when gate receipts for the senior club championships fall from €517,514 in 2017 to €201,189 last year that’s enough to prompt change.

GAA president John Horan has spoken about the Division 1 hurling semi-finals replacing the senior clubs finals on March 17 but that might run into difficulty with the Gaelic Players Association who will rally against their members sacrificing a bank holiday. If anecdotal evidence about players’ reaction to the GAA’s insistence that games had to be played this weekend (the Louth-Westmeath Division 3 game notwithstanding) is anything to go by, there will be serious opposition to giving up St Patrick’s Day, which falls on a Tuesday in 2020.

However, it’s obvious that as the Allianz Leagues are being condensed the premier club games are suffocating.

The intention to make March 17 exclusive to the senior club finals might have seemed like the GAA was giving them pride of place but when 19 inter-county league fixtures took place the previous day the build-up to the Corofin-Dr Crokes and Ballyhale Shamrocks-St Thomas’ matches was obviously going to be affected. And when they turned out to be such one-sided affairs, the billing afforded to them seemed more sympathetic than anything else.

Up against pre-season competitions that are increasingly on the wane, January gives the business end of the club season more breathing space. Their market share will be greater but if the senior club finals attendances has established something it’s disproving the argument that the club scene can be just as attractive in pulling crowds as inter-county.

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