Players have responsibility to put on show for new audience

A lot of Irish people fail to realise how little is known about Gaelic football and hurling beyond these shores.

Players have responsibility to put on show for new audience

Arthur Bright, an American journalist who attended last year’s All-Ireland hurling final, summed it up beautifully.

At the start of his article, Bright explained to his readers that during his afternoon in Croke Park he had watched the “greatest team sport in the world that no one has ever heard of”.

By the time Bright left the stadium, hurling had won another convert, and Clare’s fan-base had increased by one.

Reading Bright’s article, he clearly assumed that the bulk of his readers have never seen a game of hurling or football. He duly provided them with a beginner’s guide.

There was plenty of scoffing when Sky Sports News also treated their customers to a Dummies’ Guide to the GAA. Some Irish viewers considered the coverage to be very patronising.

Maybe it never occurred to these critics that Sky might actually know its audience better than they do. Having done their research, Sky obviously concluded that ‘Trevor in Tunbridge Wells’ wouldn’t know a square ball from a round one.

I have first-hand experience of this type of ignorance. On a flight home from a holiday, I was seated beside an Englishman who worked on a yacht owned by a Russian oligarch. It wasn’t Abramovich, but his boss was friendly with the Chelsea owner. He had stories to tell and I listened intently.

When we finally got round to talking about me, my travelling companion asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was a sports journalist and that I mainly covered Gaelic football.

He looked at me blankly. After a pause, he finally ventured: “Is that the one with the big bats?” “No, that’s tennis,” I should have said. But instead, I put him right.

It’s both astonishing and mildly depressing that such ignorance still surrounds Gaelic games.

Although they are indigenous sports, hurling and football are completely mainstream. That’s incredibly rare. In a world that has been conquered by multinational companies which sponsor multinational sports, organic games tend to get marginalised.

While the Spanish have their bull fighting and the French play boules, those native passions don’t hold the pulse of their nations.

But from the water-cooler in the morning to the wake at night, the action in GAA grounds provides the talking points for hundreds of thousands of Irish people.

Yet, a few miles across the Irish Sea, there are millions of people who know nothing about our games.

That’s one of the reasons why the GAA’s deal with Sky should be welcomed. Apart from the fact that the games will be broadcast to the Irish diaspora, they will also be shown to a brand new audience. British viewers who unwittingly stumbled on to Sky’s coverage of Kilkenny and Offaly were transfixed.

Lee Whitehead (@Law1972) tweeted: “Hurling on Sky! Brilliant idea. Superb combination of skill and violence.”

Urging his 935 followers to tune in to the action at Nowlan Park, Will Tyler (AKALumLum) declared: “Hurling is unreal.” Dismissed as a damp squib and a non-contest by the hurling cognoscenti, David Fordham (@davidfordham) thought the Leinster championship game was “crazy stuff” and he posed the age old question: “are they brave or crazy?”

The reaction of these uninitiated viewers is worth considering. Captivated by the skill and bravery that was exhibited in an uneventful hurling match, would these men have been similarly enchanted by the ugly scenes witnessed in The Athletic Grounds? Two teams engaged in a mass brawl because Cavan took exception to Armagh standing behind their flag.

As usual, whenever there is a row in a GAA ground, the media’s coverage tends to attract as much scrutiny as the actual incident. And GAA fans can be particularly sensitive.

On Twitter, a Fermanagh supporter accused the BBC of being “sensationalist”. A Tyrone supporter believed the front page pictures provided yet more evidence of an anti-Ulster agenda being peddled by the southern press.

But this persecution complex cannot be justified. The scenes were simply unacceptable.

Of course a brawl involving 30 players is going to generate negative publicity. Two teams wrestled with each other before a ball was kicked, and the bust-up led to an injury which prevented Cavan’s main scorer from starting the game. How is that not a major story? Played at their best, football and hurling are celebrations of athleticism, skill and manliness. Those are the facets of the game which deserve to be promoted. The players and the teams who have the privilege of playing in front of television cameras aren’t just representing their counties, they are representing the game.

The emotion of competition cannot be used as an excuse. Using the media as the scapegoats is just lazy and predictable. That old insular mindset must be ditched. It’s not the GAA versus the media.

Instead, if the rules of Gaelic football are implemented, and the game continues to evolve, the media can be the GAA’s best friend. The potential for promotion is enormous.

Imagine if the Will Tylers of England get to see a game like last year’s All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry? Arthur Bright was left spellbound by Clare and Cork in Croke Park. But what if Arthur’s first trip to a GAA ground had taken place last Sunday? Would he have left The Athletic Grounds determined to announce to his readers that Gaelic football is “greatest team sport in the world that no one has ever heard of?”

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