The dust has settled after one of the most tumultuous Championship games I’ve ever witnessed following Waterford – and that’s saying something. And it was just as well that the game served up some excitement, because if it hadn’t there would have been an orgy of self-loathing at the paltry attendance of 15,650. That particular community manages the wondrous achievement of combining the concerns of the die-hard Gael yearning for a return to some imaginary time when the crowds at Championship matches would have made Cecil B De Mille blush with the dreams of those who would see GAA reduced to a rump labouring in the shadows of its more civilised betters.
Reviewing the archives shows that big crowds were never a feature of Waterford games back in the days before the backdoor when it was all supposedly so much more raw, and even at these much reduced attendances from the halcyon days of the later 90’s and early 00’s the GAA still dwarfs every other sport on the island. And while it’s important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to either school of thought, the GAA should be concerned, not least by the puny attendance from Waterford – the Limerick attendance probably outnumbered that of Waterford by two-to-one. So what has gone wrong?
Taking the late 90’s and early 00’s as a starting point, part of the problem is a lack of both hope and hype. Hope is obvious – the number of counties with genuine aspirations to winning the All-Ireland has shrunk. Not much to done about that in the short-term. Less obvious is hype. When a game looks like being a sellout it takes on a whole other life in the build-up, what with a mad scramble for tickets and water cooler conversation. Even if you discount the fact that not everyone attending a match to support Waterford resides in Waterford city and county, 20,000+ people will easily find someone to bounce off in the week before the match. This habit persisted into the 00’s even when it became obvious that matches were not going to be sold out. But the 2010 Munster final was a real eye opener as people collectively realised that you didn’t need to be ripped off by Ticketmaster or chase the lad at the club to be sure of getting a ticket. And once you don’t have to pre-order a ticket, you don’t feel an obligation to go. God knows how many people woke up on Sunday morning, took one look at the weather and said ‘nah, it’s on the telly’. You can’t really blame people for making that choice, especially at those prices.
Ah, what a neat segue to the issue of prices. Much energy is used up online debating whether €30 is a reasonable price for a Championship match. Objectively it probably is, and those who ridicule the mentality that sees someone bemoan the price of a match ticket while wiring into a feed of pints have a point. Remember, a match ticket is never going to be free so the question is not whether it’s worth €30, it’s whether trimming a tenner off the price will produce 10,000 extra bums on seats. Put like that, you realise that the GAA would have to give away the tickets to induce some of the moaners to forgo those pints.
Still, there are people out there who are honestly put off by the price. My neighbour dutifully trudges to all the games with his family and it makes me wince to think how much it sets him back, particularly in the context of the reduced activity in his business. You could argue that soccer people the world over routinely pay top dollar for their match experience throughout a nine month season and that following a team through the Championship represents a much smaller investment. But that is to ignore the type of clientele who follow soccer week-in week-out. It consists of young single men and old divorced men. If that’s the market the GAA are going to pitch their prices at then they only need to look at the League of Ireland to see how successful that strategy is. You could also argue that the GAA’s various activities need to funded by someone, to which the reply is that the GAA needs to look at what it is doing if it can only meet its commitments by charging so much for big matches. The bottom line is that there is too much supply and not enough demand. The ball is in the GAA’s court. Will they come to the net?
One final thought on the crowd and its composition last Sunday. Not only were there more Limerick fans at the game, they were far more vocal than the Waterford contingent. Initially I thought this might be a function of surprise and delight at how Limerick were exceeding expectations, but that didn’t explain the sheer level of vitriol that poured forth, most of it aimed at Davy Fitz. The aggression seemed out of place, particularly when looking at the two Waterford townies in front of me who looked ripe to erupt at the slightest provocation yet maintained a sensible and dignified demeanour throughout. Talking about it with my brother during the week, we agreed that a better comparison was with our own behaviour back when we started going regularly to games back in 1998 and every incident brought a hysterical over-reaction. Over a decade of regular match attendance later, there is nothing we haven’t seen before. The Limerick fans are new to this gig and they’ll learn soon enough to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. Or maybe Waterford just produces a better class of fan. I’ll get my coat.