IT’S been the year the British forged a surprising love affair with GAA sports from the safe distance of their TV screens, writes Nick Bramhill
Sky Sports ventured into unchartered, and risky, waters earlier in the summer when the broadcaster started covering Ireland’s indigenous sports for the first time.
But TV viewers’ overwhelmingly positive, if somewhat bemused reaction, to action-packed games such as the two hurling finals between Kilkenny and Tipperary and the football showdown between Donegal and Kerry, seems to have paid off.
Now GAA clubs in Britain say they are reaping the benefits in the form of a hike in interest from people wanting to take up the sports.
Club chiefs across England have noted how the exposure to GAA sports has encouraged young English kids to start playing hurling and Gaelic football.
And following the coverage of last month’s nail-biting All-Ireland hurling finals across the water, GAA representatives in Britain said they are expecting hundreds of new converts to flock to their clubs.
Sean Hopkins, chairman of Lancashire GAA County Board, said: “It’s phenomenal what’s happening at the moment. A few teachers in Manchester I know told me English-born kids, with no background or knowledge at all of GAA, are coming into school the whole time talking about hurling rather than the Premiership.
“There’s great potential now at underage level, because youngsters have seen the game and they want to play it and that’s the key to the future of the sports.
“The first of the two hurling finals was the best possible advert for the game and there’s a feeling here Sky are going to bring things to another level. It’s the best thing that’s happened to the game in a long time.”
When Sky signed a €10m three-year deal with the GAA earlier in the summer, many seasoned observers and so-called ‘experts’ scoffed at the prospect of gaelic games proving a hit across the water, particularly as a large period of the season clashed with the World Cup.
Initial doubts about the audience’s appetite for the sports seemed to be confirmed when Sky’s TV figures for several of the season’s opening televised games pulled in little more than 10,000 viewers. But social media, not least an increasingly frenzied reaction on Twitter to more high-profile televised matches, raised the GAA’s profile and gave a massive boost to viewership figures.
The well-documented Twitter reaction, particularly to hurling, played a key part in drawing in a hugely-impressive 427,000 viewers in Britain to the epic first final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, deemed by some experts as the best game of hurling ever played.
Now there is evidence the legion of converts are joining GAA clubs across Britain.
Chairman of London-based Sean Treacy’s hurling club, Martin Carroll, said the Sky exposure will enable him to launch an underage team.
“There are English lads, who haven’t played before, getting in contact. Sky has given the games a lot of exposure and it bodes well for the future,” says Carroll.
Underage coach at London’s St. Brendan’s GAA Football Club, Paul Hughes, says “I’ve been coaching here for 15 years and I’ve never seen such interest as there’s been in the past few months. We’ve one underage team at the moment, but we’ll be able to double that number by next year because of the Sky coverage.”
All-Britain competitions chairman John Gormley, added: “In the last six to seven years, we’ve doubled the number of underage clubs in Britain from 30 to 60 and that’s happened through getting funds from the Irish government and Croke Park, and having a full-time development officer.
“But if Sky keeps covering the games, the popularity of the GAA over here will take off like never before.”
Meanwhile, tourist chiefs in Ireland have predicted a further spin-off from the coverage in the form of increased visitor numbers from across the water.
Tourism Ireland spokeswoman Sinead Grace said: “The Sky deal certainly is proving positive because it’s showcasing our national games in our largest overseas market - Britain.
“Hurling has been drawing a lot of interest in particular because it is such an exciting game to watch on TV.
Baffled Brits' praise for our Beautiful Game
When hurling made its debut on Sky Sports in June, awe-struck, but baffled British viewers took to Twitter in their droves to express their new-found admiration for the sport.
Here are some of the most memorable Twitter reactions:
1. David Rice:
Watching the hurling on sky. How feckin mad do you have to be a keeper in this game!!!??— David Rice (@Caerwynt_Loops) June 7, 2014
2. San van der Aalst:
Watching this Irish Hurling on sky sports confirms my belief that the Irish are mental.— Tizz (@samthedogtaylor) June 7, 2014
3. Lee Whitehead:
4. Toby Lester:
I had never heard of the Irish sport Hurling before but if you want to see it turn on sky sports 3 now. Outrageous scenes! What a sport!!— Toby Lester (@tobylester_5) June 7, 2014
5. Harry Ledger:
Liking this Hurling on Sky Sports 3. Not quite sure of the rules but the skill involved is outrageous.— Harry Ledger (@harryledger) June 7, 2014
6. Barry Haffenden:
Sky Sports finally showing Hurling - Incredible game - need to find a team to support for when I go to Dublin— Barry Haffenden (@BazTheHaff) June 3, 2014
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