DARA O'CINNEIDE: GAA in battle for hearts and minds with rival sports

It will probably hit us when Martin O’Neill announces his panel for Euro 2016 on Tuesday night next. Only then will it actually kick home to those of us in the GAA world that we are once again locked into a battle for the hearts and minds of sports fans in what is going to be a fairly busy summer on pitch and on screen.

We’ll get a preview of things to come this weekend when the Champion’s League final between Atlético and Real Madrid and the PRO 12 final between Connacht and Leinster diverts our attention away from the fact that there are football championship matches in three of the four provinces.

The last time we had the Euros and the Olympics in 2012 the GAA had just launched their ‘nothing beats being there’ campaign. Despite the usual criticisms, it was an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at getting supporters off their couches and armchairs and out to championship venues across the country during the busy summerperiod.

Based on attendance figures from 2012 and since, the campaign worked.

But can we be so sure this time around?

This is just the sixth time that the GAA has had to sell itself in the same market as a major international soccer tournament featuring the Republic of Ireland, and it is the first time everthat both Irish soccer teams will compete at the same European Championship.

Up to now, history has shown that major sporting tournaments only adversely affect GAA attendances and viewership figures when there is a direct clash with matchfixtures. It has also been the case that over the course of a season, and certainly within a calendar year, the GAA recovers and the effects of competing sporting interests are proven to be only temporary.

Within a year of the magical Italia Novante,we had the four-match saga between Meath and Dublin that held us spellbound into early July. Those matches not only assuaged fears that soccer would grip the nation but they also gave lie to the notion that broadcasting provincial championship games live on television would adversely affect attendances. The games also showed us that fixing a match for a Saturday evening could, given the right conditions, fill Croke Park.

That was a quarter century ago and, even at this remove, it is easy to see what a special year 1991 was with the unveiling of plans for the new Croke Park, the emergence ofsponsorship on jerseys and, of course, the re-emergence of Ulster football as a major force.

I was involved with Kerry three years later in 1994 as World Cup USA fever gripped the nation and Cork knocked us out of the championship in June. Many thought that Paul McGrath’s heroics and Ray Houghton’s goal in Giants Stadium would win over the nation’s youth for good, but people in Leitrim will tell you to this day that Hyde Park was the only place to be that July.

Eight years later, I can recall being part of a Kerry outfit waiting across the road from Fitzgerald Stadium for our 2002 Munster semi-final against Cork as Ireland lost out on penalties to Spain. The 30,425 souls who watched our rain-sodden match compared unfavourably to the crowd of 41,458 who had attended the previous year’s Munster final in Cork.

And yet, by midsummer of that year Dublin had, as difficult as it is to believe now, won their first Leinster Championship in seven years and had just started looking like the only team that could make the ambition and scale of Croke Park seem justifiable.

When Armagh won their first and only senior All Ireland at the season’s end, there was very little talk of Spain, Saipan or soccer.

The local had trumped the international and left an indelible mark on generations to come.

It is obvious after last weekend that neitherLeitrim nor any other similar sized county will win a provincial title this year. Dublin have won so many Leinster titles in recent years that even they must be wondering what value to put on a provincial title, and it could be a while again before a team walks out of obscurity to ultimate glory as Armagh did in 2002.

Last weekend’s game in Derry showed that we can’t always rely on traditional rivalry or neighbourly spite to create an atmosphere and a sense of wonder that might compete with much-hyped international sports events.Sometimes, the local and the tribal is not enough.

GAA in battle for hearts and minds with rival sports

The footballers of Limerick and Clare don’t have a traditional rivalry, as such, but geography and familiarity should ensure that tomorrow’s game in the Gaelic Grounds gives the game of football in both counties a chance to make early waves before the hurlers kick off their campaigns next month.

The prize for the winner is a provincial semi-final against Kerry in a fortnight’s time, around about the day before the Ireland vs Sweden game. By then the country should be agog with Euro 2016 and it could be difficult to get the fine-day-supporters on board for such a low key game.

The reality is that the qualifiers, yet again, represent both Clare and Limerick’s best chance of a prolonged campaign this summer.

Indeed, it was interesting to note Clare manager Colm Collins’ comments on the provincial championships a few months back. Speaking of the reluctance to abolish the provincial championships on a trial basis he said:

“…they won’t listen but what’s it going to take? Is it going to take people not going to matches? I don’t see the problem here if you divide up the pot with the provincial councils in the same way.” It’s a question for another day, perhaps.

But Limerick have always been one of those teams for whom there is no correlation between league and championship form. Indeed, their form from game to game this spring was erratic at best. In a six-day period in mid-March they frustrated the hell out of Kildare in Newbridge by playing a second sweeper in their backline, turning Kildare over again and again and catching the Lilywhites for frees on the counter attack.

It was a game they could have won had they not shown theirfamiliar failings by falling asleep for the first twenty minutes and not securing possession from opposition kickouts to capitalise on the momentum that comes with a score.

Six days later at home to Westmeath in the Gaelic Grounds, they got hosed by sixteen points .

For Limerick to have a chance tomorrow (and they are not without hope) they must avoid the dreadful starts that have characterised nearly all their performances since the start of the year.

It’s a shame for the Treatymen that they will be missing some of their better performers from the league, Iain Corbett and Tom Lee, and that Gearóid Hegarty is gone with the hurlers.


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