Paul Rouse: Flawed logic to GAA stadium policy

The Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire once wrote that the atmosphere at a GAA game was usually more like that of a race meeting than a mere football match, writes Paul Rouse.

Paul Rouse: Flawed logic to GAA stadium policy

He was referring, of course, to the swell of exuberance on any given Sunday when towns across Ireland filled with locals and visitors to see their county play provincial championship matches.

The Earl was writing in his acclaimed Encyclopedia of Sports and Games, published in 1911, and his point endures: When it comes down to it, a lot of what is unique about the GAA is the atmosphere in country towns on the days of big matches.

Visiting the usual pubs, seeing the same old faces, abusing the local pipe band. Best of all is the atmosphere in a tight ground. Fifteen thousand people is a huge crowd in O’Connor Park, Tullamore. But it is a terrible crowd in Croke Park. And this matters.

There is a genuine sense of occasion when a big inter-county match is fixed for a country town.

This sense of occasion is rooted in the pleasures of a local rivalry being played out in the locality, with neighbours standing beside each other on a terrace, getting burned in the sun and exchanging sneers.

Last week, the heart sank when the proposal of the Leinster GAA Provincial Council to build a new 40,000 stadium on the edge of the M50 in Dublin was described as “a priority”. The council is right when it judges that playing provincial matches in Croke Park is not working.

Constructing a stadium on the M50 is not the answer, however. Explaining the Leinster Council’s thinking, chairman John Horan said: “If you ever go out the M50, there’s a Junction 7 and a Junction 9, but there’s no Junction 8. Junction 8 was meant to be obviously between 7 and 9, and if you go out there and look on the right-hand side, outside the M50, there’s a big land bank in there and some people speculated, put in Junction 8 and put in a stadium in there on that land bank.

“You won’t be a million miles away from the Luas line. You’ll have the infrastructure of the motorway and you won’t be bringing everyone straight into the traffic nest that’s in Dublin, that if people are travelling to it that you’re not going to cause congestion and then, in turn, you’ll have a 40,000-seater stadium where you probably won’t get residential complaints about concerts.”

The motivation behind the venture appears to be “to have one regional stadium strategically placed so that when you have major games, that you would be able to facilitate them”.

But what could be more anaemic than the prospect of going to a soulless, off-the-shelf sports stadium on the edge of Dublin?

Is that really the height of the Leinster Council’s imagination? There is nothing about a stadium built on a land-bank beside a motorway that stirs the soul. This is not a simple matter of romance, however — it is also a matter of economics.

Already in Leinster, Tullamore, Portlaoise, Kilkenny, Navan and Wexford Park are capable of accommodating major GAA matches. And no Leinster championship match played outside Croke Park in the last decade has filled any of these stadiums to capacity.

This is, of course, mostly due to the decision to keep the Dublin senior football team in Croke Park. Now, nobody can seriously argue that Dublin are afraid to leave the capital and play away at any of their provincial rivals.

The truth is that — as things stand — Dublin would most likely beat the pick of the rest of the teams in Leinster at any venue, on any day.

The value of Dublin’s footballers travelling from the city, however, extends far beyond notions of victory and defeat. Rural towns have, for more than 100 years, benefited from the influx of commerce that big-day matches brings.

More than that, the thrill of the arrival of champions creates memories that endure. Playing at ‘Páirc Junction 8’ will never do that.

This is not to argue that the GAA should not continue to invest in grounds. Of course it should, but the kind way to put it is that the logic of the GAA’s policy on stadium development is not always obvious.

This is partly a product of the structure of the GAA, where every county wants its stadium to at least match that of its rivals. But it is also the product of poor policy making.

A decade on from its £12m redevelopment, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick is now a “burden”, and the various commercial activities — although they have been increased — are “still not enough to make it self-sufficient”, according to the Limerick County Board.

The stadium is unattractive as a venue for concerts and the draw for the Munster hurling championship for 2016 makes a lucrative gate unlikely.

Basically, the burden of the Gaelic Grounds is about to get worse. In this light, the reported spend of €70m on redeveloping Páirc Uí Chaoímh in Cork city is staggering.

That money from the public purse (up to €30m) is to be used to part-fund this enterprise underlines the importance of value for money that is at issue here. How many games will be played each year at Páirc Uí Chaoimh? Will this number of games justify the investment? Will it be self-sufficient?

Of course, if Páirc Uí Chaoimh gets the games it needs to prosper, it means those same games have been denied to Limerick, Thurles and Killarney.

Policy again — it is a peculiar sort of business that convinces people to build something in order to compete against what they already own.

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