GAA Football

GAA to discover appeal (or not) of 'League Championship' concept

The Munster SHC has huge appeal, but will its new 'League Championship' format affect that? Picture by Seamus Loughran

THE GAA may be a generally argumentative association but for most of its history its members have agreed about two things at least. The league is only the league. And championship is championship.

If you're a Gael, you know what those phrases mean.

Yet this year there are changes which effectively introduce the concept of the 'League Championship', at least to some extent.

New formats in the Leinster and Munster hurling championships and the All-Ireland senior football championship bring in 'round robin' elements.

In the early stages for the small ball code, with five-team groups in both of those provinces; later on for the football, with the 'Super Eights', two groups of four, replacing the previous football quarter-finals.

These changes reflect a continuing philosophical shift within the GAA.

Whereas the league has long been the pre-eminent competition in other sports, such as soccer and rugby, taking priority over Cups, the GAA kept its greatest love for the knock-out event.

Yet that emphasis on 'win or bust' has been challenged over the past 20-odd years. First there was some 'second chance' element introduced into hurling in 1997, then the 'back door' was opened in football in 2001.

There have been group stages recently for the lesser lights in the Leinster SHC but now it's going to involve big guns such as Kilkenny and All-Ireland champions Galway.

This year marks a significant step further along that road in both codes.

If TV schedules are any indicator of the future, then these experimental 'league championships' are here to stay.

RTE are mostly focussing on the Munster Hurling Championship, while Sky will be pointing plenty of its cameras towards those new groups in football, but none towards the provincial football championships.

The Ulster Football Championship has continued to attract audience interest in recent years, even from outside the province, due to its regular competitiveness, with most matches being broadcast live.

Yet this year only two Ulster matches will be broadcast live on TV, one semi-final and the final (albeit with two more available live on iPlayer).

That drastic change can't entirely be explained by Tyrone's utter dominance last season.

If you were cynical you might suggest that perhaps the TV companies are in cahoots with the GAA's top brass.

If the bigwigs want to do away with football's provincial championships, or at least their traditional formats, then what better way to lessen interest in them than by showing far fewer of the games on television?

If attendances fall at provincial football matches, even in Ulster, then that strengthens the case for further revamp, for football to go the way of hurling and have tiered championships, theoretically replicating the competitiveness and intensity of the League.

It'll be interesting to see if more people go to Ulster matches because they can't see as many of them live on TV.

Or if fewer go, because if a game isn't on TV then it's not a big 'event', therefore it's not worth going to see.

The likelihood is that there will be large attendances at most, if not all, of the Munster hurling games, despite the intensive TV coverage.

However, Ulster GAA, has at least given itself a fighting chance of maintaining its reputation for hard-fought matches that attract big public interest by the make-up of this year's schedule.

The well-matched pairings for most of its fixtures could hardly have been bettered if the draw had been fixed. Which it wasn't. Of course.

Whereas there are forms of seeding in the Leinster and Munster football championships, there's no truck with that up north, in fact the luck of the draw has ensured almost the opposite effect.

So the four leading sides, at least as far as the league placings are concerned, happened to be drawn against each other.

We start with Donegal, who just about went down from Division One, hosting Cavan, who earned promotion to that level.

We also have the two teams that stayed in the top flight, Tyrone and Monaghan, taking each other on.

There's a battle between the two sides that contested the Division Three Final, Fermanagh and Armagh.

And two lower-ranked teams meet – Down, who got relegated from Division Two, and Antrim, who weren't able to get out of Division Four.

In almost every case, the team that finished higher, or at least on the up, is away from home, making the tie even more finely balanced.

The only exception to that is between Down and Antrim, and the latter wouldn't be able to host a game of that magnitude at present anyway.

Logically, all those match-ups will mean that some of the more fancied sides will be sent into the qualifiers, with perceived weaker teams going further in the provincial competition.

That could add to the arguments for a 'league championship', which would ensure that one defeat against another top team doesn't send a leading side into the 'last chance saloon'.

On the other hand, there could be four thrilling tussles, none of which will be shown live on TV, which will lead to choruses that 'nothing beats Ulster football'.

As in soccer World Cup groups, some teams could limp through the early stages of these 'league championships' and end up winning overall, a la Italy, which is not really the GAA way.

And if, instead of Ulster drama, the TV companies show 'dead rubbers' or one-sided encounters in the latter stages of these new 'league championships' they might think again about the magic of knock-out competition.

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