Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Council just can't afford to let University teams quit McKenna Cup

By Declan Bogue

Last Sunday, the Tyrone PRO Eunan Lindsay left the Healy Park pressbox in order to obtain the official attendance for reporters.

When he came back, he said with some surprise, that 2,130 supporters had come through the gates for their game against Queen's.

Consider this for a minute. Late on in the week, Tyrone put their team out and it was carried in the media from Friday onwards. Supporters knew they were going along to see a very raw-looking Tyrone. The 15 players who started the game had 135 county appearances between them, including McKenna Cup, National League and Championship.

The University teams draw virtually no support, meaning thousands of Tyrone people were there to see a second-string team, in a sense.

The general rule-of-thumb applied to these attendances is to consider that a third of the attendance is made up of concessions; that is, children who get in for free, season ticket holders and other assorted groups.

If we take it that two-thirds paid the £9 admission fee, then the Ulster Council grossed at least £12,186, before they factored in what remains of the other third, all before costs of course.

At the Tyrone v Donegal game, 3,300 turned up. Two years ago when Peter Canavan became Fermanagh manager, they had a fixture with Tyrone. The Gortin Road was blocked up an hour before a throw-in that had to be delayed as over 6,000 fans spilled into Healy Park in a homage to Canavan.

Tomorrow night, Tyrone officials are preparing themselves for a gate of around 4,500 when old rivals Armagh visit.

We say this as way of illustration that when it comes to the McKenna Cup, it is a serious revenue-generator for the Ulster Council. It might be the only time you could put out a weak team in desperate weather yet fans, spurred on by the blind optimism that the start of a year brings, will turn up for virtually any game.

The Ulster Council have also marketed their competition well, including the clever and worthwhile idea of season tickets and giving the media every opportunity to devote extensive coverage to it by way of press launches.

That's why they will need to very seriously heed the warnings of college teams that are unsatisfied with the current situation regarding player eligibility.

Queen's manager Anthony McGrath has urged the Council to sort out this problem now, not in October or November, or else the three colleges could decide to pull out altogether.

UUJ have pulled out of their fixture against Cavan tonight on the grounds of player unavailability and although they have cited exams among the reasons, it is hard to imagine a similar course of action occurring if they had a chance of qualifying from their group.

In purely monetary terms, we are talking about thousands of pounds lost to the Ulster Council with this action.

Should the colleges withdraw, then a tournament which currently features 21 games, will be cut to 12. Revenue will be almost cut almost in half.

Crowds like the 2,130 that turned up to watch an experimental Tyrone team will become a thing of the past.

And the Ulster Council cannot afford that. No sporting body could.

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