Cahair O’Kane: GAA attendance problems not new

Why fans stay away is a combination of factors. One of the most significant is always ticket prices.

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Part of the nearly filled stand during the Ulster GAA Senior Football Championship between Monaghan and Cavan at St. Tiernach's Park Clones on 04-07-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Just over 8,000 attended the Ulster Championship opener between Monaghan and Cavan in St Tiernach's Park on Sunday. Picture: Philip Walsh

AH, April, the GAA calendar’s middle child.

Just sitting minding its business, not really bothering anyone but feeling as though it’s to blame for everything.

On Sunday, Monaghan and Cavan met in Clones.

Just 8,324 people showed up.

It is no surprise.

Thanks to the explosion of commentary around the meek attendance, we’ve learned that this was the first GAA championship match ever to be played in middling weather.

Storm Kathleen blew straight down the field in Clones. It didn’t really rain or anything, but damn you anyway April.

If only we’d waited another few weeks for our standard three months of summer sunshine to begin, then the people would have flocked. Flocked, I tell ye!

On Saturday week, Derry play Donegal in Celtic Park.

Same competition. Same month. Fair good chance it’ll even lash the rain.

Club committees have been investing heavily in reinforced glass from behind which they can tell members that there just aren’t enough tickets.

In Derry, clubs have been given 10 seated tickets, 50 for the main terrace and 50 more for behind the goal. Many have restricted their allocations to just one-per-person.

When those two counties met in the 1993 Ulster final, the Donegal Democrat’s preview of the match began by recalling how not even 5,000 people had turned up when they’d met three years previous.

The game had clashed with Ireland’s World Cup game against Egypt, just as the same two counties would clash with the 2002 penalty shootout against Spain.

On July 18, 1993, Clones was a mudbath. The rain didn’t take time to fall out of the sky.

In the minor game, Cathal Scullion from Derry broke his leg.

Neither side has ever really deviated from the sentiment that the senior game should never have gone ahead.

It’s nine months since Dublin and Kerry met in the 2023 All-Ireland final on the last day of July.

Every third head in the crowd was covered by a yellow mac bought on the streets outside Croke Park. It poured non-stop for two hours.

But April.

Yeah, the old Club Month. Could we not go back to that utopia? Sure didn’t the clubs have it great, they got their lads for a full month.

Except county training carried on, and naturally that’s where they went.

And inter-county challenge games too.

And sure what odds about club games in April really? Best not to chance it in case you pick up a knock.

Who the hell would blame them for that? It was a total nonsense of an operation with no winners.

Some counties, particularly big dual counties, were so desperate for space in the calendar that they threw in two rounds of club championship in April.

By the end of game two, hundreds of young lads were off looking for their J1 visa, their footballing year over already.

Could we not go back to that though?

Because All-Ireland finals in July just don’t hit the same, apparently.

Look at the thousands of empty seats in Croke Park last summer.

Of the 82,300 capacity for the All-Ireland football and hurling finals there were only… er… *checks notes*… 82,300 there.

That there were only 43,192 people at Derry’s semi-final against Kerry was deemed worthy of note.

Must be because we’re playing championship in April now.

2004 was the second-highest attended football championship in history, drawing in 1.157m spectators at the gates, second only to the previous year.

When Derry and Kerry met at the same stage in the stadium at The Proper Time For An All-Ireland Semi-Final, there were 35,457 at it.

Only five years ago, just 33,848 turned up for a Kerry-Tyrone semi-final in the middle of August.

But damn you April and your split season, go on out of the road with ye.

Coach Mike Quirke says the Kerry players had to figure things out for themselves during their All-Ireland semi-final win over Derry     Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
That there were only 43,192 people at Derry’s semi-final against Kerry was deemed worthy of note - but that was almost 10,000 more than when the same two counties met at the same stage in 2004. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

Gaelic football has an attendances problem but it has had an attendances problem almost 15 years.

The decline in fans coming through the gates for championship football has been masked by continually adding more games.

In 2015, the Ulster Championship drew a combined attendance of 140,000 people.

The first year of the April championship in 2022, that figure dropped to 99,000.

But then, guess what? Last year, played in April and May, it jumped back up to more than 112,000.

That is not evidence of big crowds of yesteryear but it’s evidence that April isn’t the problem here.

Why fans stay away is a combination of factors.

One of the most significant is always ticket prices.

If a Monaghan fan had gone to all their games so far this year, they’d have spent over €200 on tickets, an average of more than €100 on fuel and then the rest.

For Cavan fans, it’s been €189 on tickets and over €165 on fuel because their fixture list wasn’t as kind.

Everyone always hopes there’s more to be spent, but they don’t always have it to spend.

If prices stay as they were last year, the round-robin stage alone will cost €75, at €25 per game.

An Ulster final, €35.

A possible All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final, another €25. Quarter-final, €40.

Semi-final, €50.

There’s talk that tickets for the final will jump from €90 to €100 this year.

The absence of a proper season ticket that gives supporters really good value and rewards their loyalty is a massive blind spot.

When the GAA announced a price hike in National League tickets at the start of the year, they promised championship packages. Those are nowhere to be seen yet.

They’ll play on the fact that the provincial championships aren’t centrally organised by Croke Park but the average punter sees championship as championship, rightly so.

Weather can be a factor but when you look at how the 10,000 figure is regularly topped in Division One of the league, played in February and March, then you can’t really hold tight to that buoy.

Ulster people have been out fighting the corner of our provincial championship hard, naturally. It is brilliant.

But it’s tied down by the dead weight of the other three.

If Cavan reach an Ulster final, they’ll sell out Clones twice over. Same for everyone else.

Louth brought thousands upon thousands of people to Croke Park for last year’s Leinster final, but there were still only 40,000 there in total, because the Dubs have stopped bothering altogether.

Dean Rock’s admission last week that he doesn’t know how many Leinster medals he has was just a truthful reflection of the reality.

We’re guilty up here of being the one-eyed man, seeing only the good in Ulster, without really wondering why the rest of Gaelic football should hitch itself to dead competitions because ours still works.

Do we break Ulster football if we let go? Maybe the selfishness is justified.

Fans are voting with their feet, not in the sense of abandoning the sport, because the league is thriving. The All-Ireland series remains healthy.

It’s just this bit of flab in the middle that isn’t doing it for the viewing public.

But nah, don’t worry about any of that.

It’s all because we’re playing championship in April.