Small is beautiful

It’s f***in’ even worse than last week

I don’t know where the vendor who had set up camp near Mackey’s pub for the Waterford-Clare match on Sunday had been the previous week but he must have thought that things were bound to be better in the vibrant temple to Gaeldom that is Thurles. Instead a paltry crowd of 12,296 turned up. It was so bad that even the Munster Council didn’t try to pretend that this was acceptable. You could put such an attendance in its historical context. According to the match programme the 1962 clash between the two counties attracted 2,500 punters to Thurles, and even the 1992 first-round replay could only manage a crowd of 7,500. Factor in the 2010 game mentioned by Seán Walsh (11,000)  and crowds are actually on the rise, right?

Enough with the smart-alec attitude, clearly something is wrong. Tickets are too expensive – I cringed at the sight of my neighbour piling into his car with his family. I dread to think how much it cost him – and Thomas Keane summarises the arguments for a price cut pretty well. His point about not worrying about what other sports get up to is particularly apposite. However, it’s unlikely ticket prices are going to fall. They would have to halve to make an appreciable difference to people’s pockets and while it’s all very well grabbing at low-hanging fruit like hurl walls most of the expenditure of the Munster Council would be missed by the plain people of the Association were it to be withdrawn. As Thomas notes, there was a time when the GAA could charge what it liked. But it’s not just recession that means people don’t go to games. Matches between Waterford and Clare outside of a Munster final have lost their lustre, just as they didn’t appeal to the punters of 20 and 50 years ago when prices would have been counted in pennies. The hardy 12,296 souls who turned up last Sunday would probably have paid €40 while slashing prices to €15-€20 wouldn’t have led to a huge increase in attendance. Are they gouging the dedicated supporter like my neighbour? Yes they are. Alas, the GAA has to get its money from somewhere and that’s the road it has chosen to go down. The trick for the GAA going to forward must be to make games like last Sunday’s more attractive. And what I would propose has been inspired by an article a few weeks back by Ewan MacKenna about the Dubs and their use (and abuse) of Croke Park.

MacKenna catalogued the benefits to Dublin of playing in Croke Park and his piece had the near-unrecorded effect of changing my mind on the subject. And buried within was the observation that staging matches in Croke Park has the unintended impact of reducing the hype surrounding the build-up to the match. Part of the thrill of the championship summer is chasing tickets. Discussions of who is going and who might have access to the oh-so-precious tickets creates a positive feedback that is worth having itself. Imagine if our game on Sunday had been played in Walsh Park. It can hold 12,000 people, and you can be certain that there would have been thousands of extra people for whom being there would have become the most important thing in the world and they would talk of nothing during the week before the match than of how some pen pusher in the County Board was hoarding all the tickets for their cronies. And that’s before you consider that people would be forced to put their money down before they know what the weather would be like. No more deciding on the morning of the game whether you were going (can you imagine what the crowd would have been like on Sunday had the weather been as bad as it had been in the week leading up to the game?)

Unlike Cusack Park in Ennis, Walsh Park is not a serious prospect for packed Championship games. There’s a perfectly valid stand-in as Waterford’s home venue less than an hour up the motorway though – Nowlan Park. It was floated as an idea eighteen months ago at the county convention and when you look at the attendance on Sunday it looks that bit more attractive. Both Limerick and Clare would doubtless be thrilled at the prospect of home-and-away arrangements and it would mean never having to visit Páirc Uí Chaoimh again for matches with Tipperary outside the Munster final – that’d spike Frank Murphy’s guns and surely no-one could object to that.

Of course the Munster Council will probably object, and I’m sure a few of my fellow Déisigh will feel humiliated at the thought of going cap-in-hand to the Cats for a place to rest our weary head. But is it any more humiliating than the turnout last Sunday? Everyone in work on Monday was buzzing about the match, an example of the greatest game on Earth at its tub-thumping finest, yet the only other person who had gone to Thurles was an American! Something has to change. That’s my proposal, for what it’s worth. The authorities cannot seriously think ‘more of the same’ is the way forward. Can they?