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Declan Bogue: Why the GAA's falling crowds should come as no surprise at Croke Park

Room for more: the empty upper tier at Croke Park for the Kerry-Tyrone All-Ireland semi-final
Room for more: the empty upper tier at Croke Park for the Kerry-Tyrone All-Ireland semi-final
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

The renowned Irish writer Con Houlihan was a man of many quirks, but one of his most famous was that when it came to watching matches, he would stray out of the press box and into the crowd.

Con was of a journalism generation which prized yarns and colour. Detailing 40-odd scores, a dozen substitutions or Tyrone switching their sweeper four times in the first half wasn't for him.

During a recent short break to Clare, your faithful correspondent decided that he wasn't going to chase up every email and failed to notify the official channels that he would indeed be attending the final Super8s game between Tyrone and Dublin in Omagh.

A couple of hasty phone calls to those in charge and they were happily able to accommodate me, but in the 'overflow area' across the pitch from the Healy Park press box in the main stand.

And it was a delight! You could sit among supporters and feel the sense of atmosphere, clearly hear the announcement of substitutes and get a feel for the day.

All of which is a roundabout way of bringing you to the attendance that day; 15,315 punters put their money across some counter or website to get a ticket. For the spectacle it was, with the teams being leaked late on the Friday night, there was still a demand to see things up close and personal.

Tyrone is a fanatical football county. Last year, they had 7,995 at their county football final between Coalisland and Killyclogher; the third highest attendance at that level on the island. Quite a portion of that came from outside the county.

Which brings us to last Sunday and the inescapable fact that there was little appetite to see an All-Ireland semi-final in the flesh. Just 33,848 were there to witness Kerry's victory over the Red Hands in an 82,300 capacity stadium.

Given that 49,696 were there for Tyrone's semi-final against Monaghan last year, alarm bells have been ringing since half-time on Sunday when the paltry figure was flashed up on the big screens.

At the start of the year, the GAA took an unpopular decision to increase ticket prices for matches. Division One and Two games went up from €15 to €20. Of course, you could always pre-purchase a ticket online at €15, but the old pre-purchase price was €12.

The biggest hike came for the All-Ireland final. Last year they were €80 but they are now €90 to get a stand ticket, with prices on Hill 16 rising from €40 to €45.

Qualifier games rose from €15 to €20, and Round Four matches went from €20 to €25.

The reasoning behind it was that the extra monies would be filtered down through the clubs.

In justifying the price hike to Seanad Éireann, GAA president John Horan said: "We have decided as an association to increase our grants to clubs throughout this country from €2m to €4m in the space of four years and that has to be done by getting funds."

He also mentioned that it was a good time to make the increase as there was an economic recovery in full swing.

His arguments were skewered, however, by the UCD historian Paul Rouse, who pointed out: "The ticket prices for an All-Ireland Football or Hurling final are now 30% higher than they were at the height of the madness of the Celtic Tiger.

"The league prices for Division One and Two matches are at least 33% higher than they were during the Celtic Tiger years."

The increase in price is unpalatable to most. Price hikes tend to be unpopular in any case, but to present it as the key variable in a poor attendance fails to note several other factors.

Some numbers first, and please stay with us. Last year, Tyrone and Monaghan drew a crowd of 49,696 to Croke Park for their semi-final. It was the Oriels' first appearance at that stage since 1988 and, although only 29,679 were at that, the past really is another country, with county football hugely hyped up in the interim. And they were playing Cork, who have a notoriously poor support for their footballers.

Leaving the outlier that is Dublin out of consideration, 50,770 were there at the same stage for Kerry versus Meath in 2009. Ten years prior, in 1999, Cork and Mayo brought 58,496, and Meath against Armagh had 60,589.

Some 30 years ago was Mayo and Tyrone with a crowd of 48,177, while 40 years ago Monaghan faced Kerry in front of 32,254. And 50 years ago, Kerry and Mayo played in front of 32,258, and Offaly and Cavan drew 35,185.

Can the GAA be happy with attracting the kind of crowds that were there 40 and 50 years ago, when travel was more difficult?

The key factors are two-pronged. Almost every big game now is televised, while up to 30 years ago you were lucky to see the two semi-finals and final.

Finally, you get to the volume of games. Tyrone played their 22nd tie of 2019 on Sunday. Five Dr McKenna Cup matches, seven in the league and 10 Championship.

Their road trips included Croke Park three times, the Athletic Grounds in Armagh three times, Roscommon twice along with Killarney, Cavan, Kildare, Longford and Clones. The cost of going to all that along with home games is insurmountable to most.

Sunday was a disaster waiting to happen, but it should come as no surprise.

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