Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Joe Kernan: Saturday night fever out of tune with fans

Crowds at recent Saturday night games have been down, as was the case at the Tyrone v Donegal NFL Div 2 tie last month
Crowds at recent Saturday night games have been down, as was the case at the Tyrone v Donegal NFL Div 2 tie last month

Not so long ago Saturday night fever was rampant with the GAA. Indeed, there was evidence to suggest that Sunday games had to some extent lost their popularity and that the fixtures calendar might undergo a transformation.

But more recently the appeal of Saturday games, particularly in the Allianz Football and Hurling Leagues on what can be bitingly cold nights in February and March, would appear to have been on the wane.

When Armagh met Dublin in the first major game at the re-vamped Athletic Grounds last month and Tyrone hosted Antrim recently at Healy Park, Omagh, the attendances were rather disappointing.

And from what I hear these are only two of a number of recent Saturday night games that have failed to strike a vibrant chord with the paying public.

While the Spring Series which the Dublin county board is currently promoting at Croke Park whereby league hurling and football games are played as part of a double bill has been successful to date, it is worth remembering that the Dubs invariably enjoy huge support no matter when they play.

The board’s decision to take their games from the more intimate setting of Parnell Park to Headquarters has already, it would seem, paid handsome dividends in helping to promote GAA in the city.

But the fact of the matter is that Saturday night fixtures in general do not command the public appeal which they did initially.

It is still the one night of the week on which people of all ages like to dine out, party or relax at home.

It has come as no surprise to me that GAA Director General Pauric Duffy has suggested just this week that the Association should perhaps now look at the possibility of staging major inter-county games, particularly league fixtures, on Friday nights.

Much was made of the decision to turn down Dublin’s plea to host Mayo at Croke Park on Friday March 18 but that decision was to a large extent based on the fact that players, and particularly Mayo players, might have had to be compensated for taking time off work early in order to play in the match.

Duffy, to be fair to him, has since conceded that it would have perhaps been more appropriate for the GAA to have considered this as a special case given that on March 18 many people were off work because of St Patrick’s weekend and that a general holiday mood prevailed, particularly in the south of the country.

Be that as it may, his theory that neighbouring counties could play against each other on Friday nights if drawn against each other in competitions like the Allianz League or the All Ireland qualifiers merits serious consideration.

Indeed, I would hope that Friday night games will be given the green light on a trial basis next year.

Matches such as Derry v Tyrone, Monaghan v Cavan, Armagh v Down, Dublin v Meath or Sligo v Roscommon would not cause serious inconvenience for players or fans on Friday nights. They would also mean that players and supporters could then have Saturday and Sunday to spend as they pleased.

And given that figures released recently from Croke Park confirm that some 90 per cent of GAA matches are actually run at a loss because of poor gate receipts, can there be any harm in putting Duffy’s suggestion into practice, if only for a limited period?

This disclosure by the GAA’s financial gurus surely hints at public apathy in relation to a number of competitions, yet the one tournament which the Association seems particularly enthusiastic to ditch is the Railway Cup.

Maybe it does not retain its gloss of yesterday but what about the various other competitions which attract negligible gates?

Certainly, there is a need to streamline the overall fixtures calendar but I can think of numerous ways of doing this without invading the inter-provincial representative arena.

Indeed, the semi-finals of this competition have in recent years been staged on Saturdays and generally speaking in out of the way venues. How could it prosper in these circumstances?

Saturday night fever is not as contagious as it once was – and it remains to be seen if Friday night matches prove the panacea for all the GAA’s ills.

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