Decision to charge U16s into terraces 'safety driven': McAvoy
The start of this year's Ulster SFC has seen a marked drop in attendances, even in spite of a lack of live TV coverage compared to past years. Cahair O'Kane talks to Ulster GAA secretary Brian McAvoy on falling numbers at games, the decision to charge U16s into the terraces and whether the GAA overlooked the north when it brought Sky Sports into the TV rights market...
CO’K: Are Ulster Council concerned by the poor attendances this summer?
BMcA: “Not particularly. Compared to where we were this time last year, after the first five games, this time last year we were at 56,700 and this year we’re at 47,500, give or take. So roughly 9,000 less than we were.
“There are a number of factors in that, three in particular. First is Saturday night games. Last year we had one and it was our lowest attendance, the Monaghan-Fermanagh game (7,743).
“This year our two Saturday night games have been our lowest – Fermanagh v Armagh (8,421), and then Saturday’s game in Newry (5,589). Obviously you had the big counter attraction on Saturday night and that did take away from some of the crowd.
”Last year we had two very attractive derby games in the first round – Down v Armagh and Cavan v Monaghan. We didn’t have any local rivalries like that this year. Of course we did have Tyrone v Monaghan and that, not surprisingly, has been our biggest attendance to date, over 15,000.
“There have been issues around ticket pricing. We looked at it in the round and in terms of sterling prices for preliminary and first round, there’s a £2 increase to both terrace and stand. While I’m sure it may be a factor, it’s not the only factor. “The other thing is the new structures this year in making everything much more condensed. You would have had some people, not a lot, who would have gone to all the Ulster Championship games. The Saturday-Sunday thing and reducing it to seven weeks for the entire championship is no doubt a factor.
”Given the Super 8s at the end of the season, a lot of people are maybe waiting to see how that pans out and wanting to take in those games as opposed to earlier games. We’re still finding our feet in this new system.
“We’re about 9,000 down [on the overall attendance so far] but it’s not a surprise. I think I did hint in an interview with Brendan Crossan that the new format would impact on attendances and that’s come to pass.”
CO’K: You’re down 2,000 on last year’s average of 11,401 at this stage, and that was down on the previous year, which was down from the previous year. In 2015 at this stage, the average attendance was 14,480. This year, it’s 9,401. That’s a big drop?
BMcA: “It is and that’s why I’m sure ticket prices may be a factor, but it’s not the main factor, because this is the first year there’s been a change. Younger generations of people maybe just don’t go out as much and they pick and choose, as opposed to going to all their games. That’s been a trend across the board. You’ll have seen from the national figures that the only games where people really come out are when you get to the business end of the season.”
CO’K: Was the public’s temperature for a price rise misjudged?
BMcA: “No, because we were out of kilter with the other provinces. You have to put a value on your commodity. If someone said to you in 2008 that your ticket would only be £2 extra in 2018, I think people would have laughed at you. I think it’s a combination of factors that I’ve outlined, and I think those other ones carry more weight than the ticket prices.”
CO’K: Have you been a bit surprised by the public and media reaction to the ticket prices?
BMcA: “I have because the facts don’t back it up, and you’ve just given me facts yourself, which show that the ticket prices are not the main factor.”
CO’K: Are families in danger of being priced out of going to football?
BMcA: “There are concessions and family tickets. The juvenile ticket is not new totally, but the reason for tickets being introduced for the terraces is that we’re now operating in very different times in terms of safety at grounds. We have to be able to vouch for every single person coming through the turnstile, so every person must have a ticket. Safety regulations dictate that. In one respect, it’s a price for higher levels of safety, so we know exactly how many we have in. I’m not saying we can’t look at the pricing structure for juveniles. At the minute we’ve priced it at £5/€5. There’s nothing to say we couldn’t review that at the end of the season and say ‘could we go £3 or something?’ It’s safety driven. We’re being dictated to by higher standards now than 10 years ago. You’ll find that’s the same in other provinces.”
CO’K: If it’s a safety issue and a ticket is required, could a free ticket not be printed that admits entry at no cost?
BMcA: “It is a resource in having to print off the ticket. You’re relying on a lot of goodwill in terms of our system. If there’s no charge at all, you just don’t know, people could print lots of tickets and maybe not use them. Then potentially, in some cases, you could have near a sellout, and that could deprive genuine people who want to go. I can understand where you’re coming from but equally, there are very valid reasons for not doing that, where there should be a charge. There’d be nothing to stop someone going in and printing 500 tickets for every juvenile in the club, but none of those juveniles might come.”
CO’K: Is there no prospect of a reverse on the ticket pricing structure for the rest of this summer?
BMcA: “The prices are agreed for this year. On Sunday in Omagh there’s only one stand, but in Clones where there’s an uncovered stand for the second semi-final, they won’t be the same price as the Gerry Arthurs Stand. “
CO’K: Is there an increase in price between the quarter-finals and semi-finals?
BMcA: “No, there’ll be no increase.”
CO’K: What about the final?
BMcA: “Yes there’ll be an increase. The Gerry Arthurs Stand was €30 last year, it’s €35 this year, and however that translates into sterling.”
CO’K: That’s the pre-purchase price?
BMcA: “Well ordinarily you’d like to be in a position where the Ulster final would sell out in advance anyway and there wouldn’t be any tickets on sell on the day. That’s why we have our Buy Early And Save campaign. Tickets purchased on the day are more expensive because we’re having to use resource on the day.”
CO’K: So it’s €40 on the day for the Ulster final?
BMcA: “I’m not exactly sure, I know it’s €35 on presale and it would be slightly dearer on the day. Hopefully it’ll not come to that.”
CO’K: When ticket prices were increased for the 2011 championship, attendances dropped to an average of 9,280 at this stage. When they were reduced again in 2012, the attendances took a jump to 12,343 at this stage? Is it something that will be on the agenda for next year?
BMcA: “There are a lot of factors – it depends on the pairings of who’s playing who sometimes. We had replays some of those days, which will be less likely now since extra-time is played except for the final. It’s important to put everything into the mix.”
CO’K: I understand that Ulster Council has very little say over the TV situation but two games live across the entire summer doesn’t do much to promote the Ulster Championship? There’s a drive to get bums on seats but there’s a happy medium?
BMcA: “Bums on seats is one element but promotion of the games is the other. Obviously the contract is with the main stakeholders, RTÉ and Sky. BBC have been able over the last number of years, including this year, to come to an arrangement with RTÉ, in agreement with the GAA, that they will show live any game that RTÉ are showing live. This year, two live games is disappointing but in terms of the overall games they’re covering, of the 21 provincial games they’re showing, 14 of them are hurling and seven are football. The revamped Munster and Leinster hurling championships was always going to be a factor.
“Connacht have two, Ulster have two, Leinster have two and the only live game in Munster is the final. Because neither Sky nor RTÉ were showing a game at the same time, we were able to support a BBC bid to Croke Park to show the two Saturday night games live online. That took a bit of negotiation because they say 45 live TV games, but we were able to argue successfully that because it was online, it’s not on TV, and we were able to get that concession. Had a different game been shown by RTÉ or Sky at the same time, that could not have been accommodated, and that’s helped.
“I know it’s been said that all our games are being shown in-full, either live or deferred, and that’s better than every other province. But we’re quite different in that not everyone in the north can receive the other channels, and we have our own broadcaster in BBC which is paid for by the licence fee, so I think we are entitled to something additional.”
CO’K: The lack of coverage on BBC is a bugbear for GAA fans in the north. If they bid for rights, the GAA doesn’t offer them a package just to show Ulster – they’re bidding for Munster hurling, Connacht football, whatever’s in the package that the GAA are selling. Is that something Ulster Council will look to address?
BMcA: “We wouldn’t have any control over it per se. We can make our voices heard but ultimately the broadcasting rights belong to the association nationally, and those decisions are made by the association nationally. While we can throw our tuppence worth in, ultimately the decision’s not ours and we’re outside that decision making process.”
CO’K: Do you understand why people get frustrated at that? Does that come from a lack of understanding of the process?
BMcA: “That could be the case although I’ve had a few opportunities to explain it this year, so there’s more clarity on it now. Part of the difficulty is say BBC had been given rights but RTÉ and Sky are showing a game simultaneously in the All-Ireland series, you could have had an Ulster team that you’d been able to watch the whole way through and then if they got to an All-Ireland semi-final or final, BBC couldn’t show it. That would have caused probably more mayhem.”
CO’K: Sky’s entry to the market has caused this problem. BBC hasn’t been able to show an All-Ireland final since 2012 because Sky entered the market in 2013 and they now hold the UK-wide rights. Is it fair to say the GAA overlooked the north when they sold those rights?
BMcA: “I wouldn’t say they overlooked the north. Sky are as entitled to be bidding as any other broadcaster, it’s important to make that point. But yes, that has impacted on the deal that’s now in place until 2022. That has certainly impacted on the number of games being shown free-to-air in the north.
“The rights are negotiated on a national basis. It would be nice if there would be some deviation (for the north) but that hasn’t happened this time. We’ll see what happens the next time. It’s something we’ll factor into the mix but we’re stuck where we are until 2022 anyway.”
Overall attendance figures this decade
2014: 121, 991 (159,725 with replays)
2016: 133,922 (171,319 with replays)
Average and total attendances after five games
2010: 12,736 (63,680)
2011: 9,280 (46,400)
2012: 12,343 (61,711)
2013: 11,530 (57,649)
2014: 14,524 (72,620)
2015: 14,480 (72,402)
2016: 13,012 (65,061)
2017: 11,401 (57,004)
2018: 9,401 (48,007)
2018 Ulster SFC attendances
Donegal v Cavan 9,612
Fermanagh v Armagh 8,421
Tyrone v Monaghan 15,029
Down v Antrim 5,589
Derry v Donegal 9,356
2017 Ulster SFC attendances
Monaghan v Fermanagh 7,743
Donegal v Antrim 10,083
Derry v Tyrone 10,017
Down v Armagh 16,168
Cavan v Monaghan 12,993
Tyrone v Donegal 22,609
Monaghan v Down 13,396
Tyrone v Down 31,912