BRENDAN O'BRIEN: There’s merit in national football and hurling leagues

For years now this column asked itself: ‘what exactly does Allianz see in the national football and hurling leagues that most of us don’t?’

The insurance company extended its sponsorship of the competitions through to, and including, the 2020 season at the launch of this year’s versions earlier this month.

The partnership will be 28 years old by the time that branch of the tree reaches maturity: a strappling oak in a sponsorship sector where contracts rarely blossom beyond saplings.

Years of attending the launches mean that we can tell you with confidence that chief executive Brendan Murphy is someone who holds the GAA dear to his heart.

That’s not unusual. Dig ever so gently into the roots of most of these deals and you will find that the man or woman in charge has a particular affinity with the sport or section of the arts they’re committing money to.

There’s merit in national football and hurling leagues

That’s enough to get you in the door. Nothing more.

This is a competition, after all, that has been nipped, cut and reconfigured.

It has been shifted from its old lodgings on either side of Christmas to its current address and it has never fully engaged the wider audience, given everyone’s eyes are forever drifting towards the hazy days of summer.

The indifference to the league is vocalised by players and managers on a regular basis when they dilute the relevance of two points gained or lost.

Even those fortunate enough to claim the Division One titles in past years sometimes go out of their way to stress “it is only the league” and that all conclusions should be postponed, if not binned.

Add to all that the minimal efforts made by the GAA to promote the competitions down the years and it seems a peculiar wagon on which to hitch your stock.

Yet there are obvious attractions from a commercial standpoint, given it is by far the busiest three months in the GAA calendar and one that incorporates 31 counties, as well as London.

Like Heineken with rugby’s old European Cup, Allianz has become inextricably linked with these competitions.

That has become even more apparent, with the GAA’s move towards a multi-sponsor model for the All-Ireland championships where companies such as Centra, Etihad, and Liberty Insurance must pay handsomely for just a slice of their chosen cakes.

There’s merit in national football and hurling leagues

So that’s a lengthy reach right with the leagues and it is one extended by the presence on our screens of games throughout the weekend: Setanta on a Saturday evening, TG4 on Sunday afternoons, and a highlights wrap on the national broadcaster that evening, even if the last of those always has the air of being a rather perfunctory and unsatisfactory exercise.

All that has never been enough to prevent the leagues from subsiding into the shadows of other sports, or even other GAA matters.

So, while the football gets underway tomorrow, the likes of Dublin v Kerry and Cork v Mayo have been relegated down the list of priorities by the ongoing wailing over proposed changes to the All-Ireland football championship.

How ironic, then, that the season’s showcase event could do with aping the league which, for all its frailties, provides a framework on which any proposal should be based.

Nowhere more so than in its embrace of meritocracy since the advent of a linear structure of divisions from one through to four which has offered realistic ambitions to both the Kerry and the Carlow footballers.

Should Antrim or Carlow hold realistic ambitions of escaping Division Four? And Louth and Monaghan from Division Three in hurling?

Of course they should. Do Kildare deserve to be kicking off their campaign against Westmeath in Division Three on Sunday? Or Clare in hurling’s 1B?

There’s merit in national football and hurling leagues

When have tables lied? If the GAA’s inter-county competitions were currencies, then the All-Ireland would be an archaic confusion of shillings and ha’pennies and half crowns, the leagues a modern triumph of decimalisation and common sense.

It’s 45 years since Ireland dispensed with the old system, by the way, although the GAA, in this instance, continues to trade with its outdated coinage.

Some counties will see the entire summer pass by later this year without a single championship game being played by their county on home soil.

The league guarantees at least three home fixtures and a run of regular games across more than two months, unlike the staccato uncertainty of matches which leave every county a hostage to fortune in the provincial championships.

GAA president Aogan Ó Fearghaill put it well a few weeks back at the annual launch when he stated quite simply that: “February, March and April represent the busiest period in the GAA inter-county calendar and the competitions provide all of our counties with something real and tangible to aspire to”.

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked about how democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

Imperfect though it is, you could argue something similar for the leagues.


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