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Joe Kernan: GAA can’t fight with armchair Premier League supporters

Within hours of Manchester United drawing with Everton and Manchester City beating Wolves last Sunday, no one was left in any doubt that the sporting world would grind to a halt on Monday night.

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Previously arranged meetings, socials and get-togethers were hastily cancelled as a robust marketing blitz spearheaded by Sky Sports persuaded even the most lukewarm follower that a must-see event is about to unfold.

And, yes, thousands upon thousands of what we refer to as die-hard GAA fans will be glued to their televisions, many genuinely willing one of the sides to victory while a deciding goal in off the post in the fifth minute of added time will evoke sheer ecstacy within the ABU (Anyone But United) fraternity.

If the preamble to Monday’s game carries perhaps a ration of arrogance in relation to the overall product, then the GAA should certainly be the last sporting body to take issue.

Up until quite recently, the Association’s inherent intransigence when it came to accepting that the live televising of other major sporting events staged simultaneously with their own important fixtures impacted severely on gate receipts virtually defied belief.

The underlying — and sadly misplaced — feeling was that GAA fans would flock through the turnstiles oblivious to the drama, skill, passion and spectacle that might have been unfolding on their screens.

Happily, a measure of realism is now more marked and this could mean the Association will be in a better position to meet the huge challenge it faces in marketing its games not just for this summer but for the future.

Twenty-four hours after Director General Paraic Duffy revealed that a robust marketing and publicity campaign would be launched to hype up the All-Ireland championships series a miserly 11,300 crowd attended the Allianz Football League semi-final double bill at Croke Park when Kerry met Mayo and Cork faced Down.

It was Cork player Paul Kerrigan, outstanding in his side’s victory, who afterwards perhaps best articulated the task facing GAA chiefs when he declared that “you could even hear the ball being kicked out there.”

The best and most sensitive microphones in the world will not capture that sound next Monday night, that’s for sure.

What they will record will be a raucous din, deafening singing and passionate chanting — wouldn’t the GAA just love this to be par for the course for their championship itinerary?

That is unlikely to be the case but this should not be allowed to engender scepticism as the Association attempts to meet what is a massive challenge for the hearts and minds of what has become a circumspect sporting public.

The combined allure of the Heineken Cup, the European Soccer Championships, the Olympics and the Irish Open at Royal Portrush will almost certainly that a stay-at-home ‘follower’ will not endure a minute’s boredom.

The GAA, to be fair, is responding to the demand by Paraic Duffy that it’s only through people pulling their weight that the championship series will generate the crowds and finance necessary to sustain its image as one of the major sporting events of the year.

Competitive ticket pricing, pre-match and half-time entertainment, enhanced facilities at grounds and a hoped-for positive approach from teams rather than an obsession with defensive machinations will form incentives that are designed to woo followers.

It is time for the GAA to think smart rather than follow blind tradition and to dispense with the arrogant theory that they possess a ‘superior’ sporting product.

The Association must be flexible, accommodating and above all sensible in terms of fixing venues and times for matches.

It has been proven conclusively that the Association cannot go head-to-head with other major sporting events and expect to come out on the right side in terms of takings at the turnstiles.

Even with modest marketing, the Railway Cup and MacRory Cup finals attracted 3,000 and 6,000 fans to Armagh in March. In today’s climate these are encouraging numbers for matches that are not exactly top drawer attractions.

There is no doubt that if the GAA authorities give a lead and encourage the four provincial Councils to take cognisance of major events in other sports before committing themselves to their match arrangements then I think they will get a much better response from the fans.

The GAA in Ulster has its own versions of Rooney, Valencia and Giggs and Scholes in players like Stephen O’Neill, Paddy Bradley and Danny Hughes. Just indeed as Sean Cavanagh, Ciaran McKeever and Mark Poland do a similar job for their sides as do the infinitely wealthier Toure, Kompany and Silva. And, let’s be honest, we have the odd Balotelli and Tevez in the GAA mix too.

Taste buds are already whetted for the championship — the GAA’s mission is to make sure that the appetites of fans are sated in appropriate fashion.

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