John McEntee: So much at stake as Super 8 series begins
THE architects of the Super 8s have got their wish – the top eight teams, with the exception of Mayo, have negotiated their way through the provincial competitions and the rocky road of the Qualifiers to take part in their little experiment.
The best teams are being pitted against each other over the course of three weekends, once at home, once away and once on the hallowed ground of Croke Park. The home venue initiative was Central Council's little sweetener to the country folk. It was a cute move as it encourages locals to attend and it has proven to be the right decision with the hindsight afforded to us following the Newbridge stand-off.
That said, how many county facilities are fit for purpose and will accommodate upwards of 15,000 spectators?
Newbridge ought to be ruled out immediately. Inject logic into the equation and it is evident the facility is no better than a decent club ground, which falls far below the size needed to host a Super 8s tie.
Perhaps the draw has favoured them from this perspective as it appears their home game is against Galway which would likely draw a crowd of 15,000, so the GAA will only be letting down around 8,000 supporters.
Maybe lessons will be learned in advance of 2019 and the venues decided for this stage of the competition will be restricted to stadia which can accommodate a minimum number of, say, 18,000 spectators.
The other home venues are ideal for the occasion. Won't it be brilliant for many kids along the border counties to witness the awe of the Kerrymen parade through the St Tiernach's Park car park and down along Millbrook Upper to train on the warm-up pitch as the local support stare and jeer? In Clones, mind games start well before the first whistle.
The second group sees Tyrone at home to Dublin. The biggest challenge is getting to the ground itself, which takes considerable planning but when there the pitch is as good as any other on a summer's day and it's 18,500 capacity should create a brilliant atmosphere.
The same can be said of Hyde Park in Roscommon and Pearse Stadium in Galway, which are accustomed to hosting provincial finals. These games are tricky enough for players without layering on additional pressures of battling for tickets for family and friends – a stress normally associated with All Ireland semis and finals.
The only venue of concern in Group Two is Seán MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey. This 12,500 capacity venue is one of the best places to play and the local people are very accommodating to visitors.
Ballybofey is but a hop, skip and
a jump from Tyrone. This game will draw a massive crowd and
could prove vital. This will be an all-ticket game and many supporters will be left disappointed.
Watching a game of such importance on TV bears no comparison and raises the question once more: is the Super8 an international promotion of our games or an opportunity for grassroots men, women and children to regularly observe the best teams against each other?
These two positions need not be mutually exclusive, but the latter must not be at the expense of the first.
The Super 8 games need large attendances and electric atmospheres. Without them they will look like a rehash of the failed inter-provincial competition – the one in which our best players play in front of hundreds rather than thousands.
In the main, Irish people do not have a lot of spare cash. It will be interesting to see how they react to ticket prices.
As is the case in most circumstances, it might take a few years before we really know the answer to this.
From the TV companies' perspective, attendances at games are critical.
How else can a TV company advertise a product if the perception is that it doesn't garner local support.
In addition to affordable ticket prices perhaps the GAA may want to consider other promotional incentives aimed at maximising attendance.
The usual concessions for children, students and OAPs apply but they could also reduce ancillary costs such as match day programmes and make the occasions more family friendly by handing out freebies to the kids in the form of GAA party bags and offer family tickets in areas other than in the corner of the pitch.
No father or teenager would
freely purchase these tickets on another day if they were given a choice.
What about reopening the gates of the pitch half-time to hundreds of kids with footballs and hurleys to kick and puck about? This is a uniquely Irish thing.
I want the Super 8 to be a success for the teams involved and for the paying public. I also want it to be a success for the GAA generally. Let's hope it is as there is a lot at stake.