Opinion: Páraic Duffy has done an admirable job, but this Championship calendar worries me
This is not New Zealand, this is Ireland. So for a small nation with a very similar population with 3 big sports - Soccer, Rugby and Gaelic Games, rather than a singular Rugby obsession, it can be argued that the latter, Gaelic Games, is in a very healthy state. 1.1 million people watched the All Ireland Football Final between Dublin and Mayo last September. Only the Late Late Toy Show had more viewers. The All Ireland Hurling Final involving Galway and Waterford was the fourth most watched event. Croke Park could have been filled twice over for both finals, such was the demand for a seat. The Championships are incredibly popular with the public. Over 46,000 people attended the Ladies Gaelic Football Final between Dublin and Mayo. There is a bond between people and where they are from, a factor which is disappearing from Premier League clubs across the water, that are now franchises in all but name.
Páraic Duffy, who retires as Director General of the GAA at the end of March after 10 years at the helm, has done a good job and is a man of great integrity. The Monaghan native has managed 32 independent republics with a deft touch. Soccer is the most popular sport in the country in terms of participation, but the League of Ireland can't hold a candle to the Championship, which has a genuine connection with the public. Finances are healthy for the purposes of redistribution and there is no crippling stadium debt. Relations with the GPA are smooth. People may argue against the commercial bent of the GAA, but how is it supposed to fund itself and reinvest in communities to a high level so people play Gaelic Games?
The challenges are the same as they have always been. Club v County. Under the counter payments to managers which stain the amateur status of the Association. The growing divide between the inter county elite and everyone else. Television deals with pay per view operators which are controversial. It's not an easy job for anyone to oversee that.
This is why Páraic Duffy led the way for change to the calendar, on a 3 year trial basis, which will allow more time for club fixtures. The clubs are the bedrock of the Association, and they need to be listened to and tended to, but I think the Championship will suffer under this revamped calendar. Like it or not, the Championship is the shop window. The more promotion, interest, excitement and talk around the Championship, the better it will be for the Association and ultimately, for the regular public to be interested in taking part in Gaelic Games activity, getting their child to play a sport, or volunteering at their local club. The Club Finals on St Patrick's Day always have a ceiling of attendance of around 30,000. I can never envisage a situation where that figure would be 82,300 and casual fans would discuss the previous day's events at the water cooler in work.
So the club and county need to co-exist peacefully and complement each other, not as pillars of friction. Right now there are 7 months dedicated to inter county action under this new calendar. January, February and March are for preliminary competitions, including the Leagues. May, June, July and August are fixed for the Championship. I was going through the 2018 calendar today and the truncated Championship looks like a traffic jam. Round robin hurling games every week. The Munster Football Final on a Saturday night. The Munster and Leinster Hurling Finals on the same day. A packed Super 8 structure in Football. The All Ireland Hurling Final on August 19th. The All Ireland Football Final would be the following week if not for the expected visit of the Pope. What happened to a build up to a game? An August finish? That's when families often take their holidays. The World Cup is on for a month between June 14th and July 15th. Why would the GAA give up the promotional and marketing and media coverage of Gaelic Games to other sports in September? It makes no sense to me. What about the Club, one may reply? Ok, why not do this then?
Abolish the preliminary inter county competitions. They may be nice for sponsorship reasons, but playing matches in bitter January is madness. Also, does the League really matter? A Football medal in 2001 for a Mayo player or a Hurling medal in 2007 for a Waterford hurler would be traded 1,000 times for an All Ireland winner's medal. Where the League serves a good purpose is in the competitive nature of it, and the tiered model of it allows the smaller counties to chase and win much coveted silverware. The provincial championships are not going to go - there is too much emotion linked to them and the county boards won't have it. So why not run club games exclusively from October until March, with no inter county games. During the rest of the year, county boards can continue to run club matches, but secondary to the inter county game. Run the provincial championships quickly in April and early May, which will retain the romance which has generated brilliant stories in the past - Clare in 1995, Westmeath in 2004, Sligo in 2007. Then from mid May until September, run the Championship in some form of League Championship structure, with a tiered system and trophies for each tier. All Ireland Finals can be retained. The build up to them, the ticket frenzy, the preview nights, the great articles and preview shows can remain. The tradition of the All Ireland Finals can remain. Consistency of performance in the League campaign will be rewarded. It's worth some thought during this three year trial. What is certain is that everyone else will have a different opinion. That's why we love the GAA. It's not perfect, but at least we feel that we own it.