With both Ireland and Northern Ireland qualified for the European Championships, the GAA may suffer a big hit in attendances next June, considering many of their target demographics will be over in France as the provincial championships reach their climax.
Fortunately, Martin O’Neill’s side have not been drawn to play on a Sunday, and while Northern Ireland will play Poland on June 12th, this game will be at 5pm, after one of the Ulster SFC quarter-finals has concluded.
However, the real spanner in the works comes should either side progress to the last 16. If Ireland or Northern Ireland reach the knockout stages, they could be playing on Sunday June 26th at 2pm. This will not sit well with GAA chiefs, as a double header is scheduled for Croke Park that day, with Dublin likely to be playing in the Leinster football semi-final.
The overlap between the Hill 16 faithful and the Green Army is evident. Last September, the day after the All-Ireland Hurling Final and two days after Dublin vs Mayo, Ireland played Georgia in front of a disappointing attendance at the Aviva Stadium.
Those who did not point to Dubs’ victory over Mayo as a key factor in such a disappointing attendance for the FAI are deluded.
Next year, it is probable that should Ireland qualify for the second round, Croke Park will experience similar troubles for the double header.
Last September, the overlapping punters saw the two games, and picked the bigger event. A date with Meath, Louth or Carlow would see the Dubs installed as odds on favourites, with the bookmakers’ handicap in the region of 20 points.
Meanwhile Ireland could be facing Spain in the last 16 of the European Championships, with a chance to make history. Fans will pick and choose, and there will only be one winner.
However, the GAA are unlikely to back down in any eventuality. In recent years, we have seen poor attendances at GAA games due to clashes with Six Nations ties.
County finals fell victim to Rugby World Cup games this Autumn, while some county boards wisely avoided the big rugby fixtures at all costs. Attendances rose as a result.
If the GAA think they can take a Euro 2016 game head on and not suffer a major dip in attendance, they are badly mistaken.
Yes, life must go on, and the hurling and football fixtures cannot be held to ransom by potential matches and permutations at the Euros, but a minimum degree of common sense is also required. The Croker double-header is the one obvious tie that ought to be moved. With so much notice, it would not take any major upheaval to change the semi-finals back 24 hours to the Saturday.
With well over a million viewers expected to tune into each of Ireland’s games at the Euros, GAA viewership ratings would also nosedive should there be a clash, and with thousands actually travelling to France, it is unlikely that the Croker double bill will garner much interest.
Gaelic games remain the most popular sports in Ireland, but are undoubtedly smaller than the occasional major soccer/rugby game. Nonetheless, the GAA’s old failings in reluctance to swallow their pride and back down may prove to be their downfall once again, and it is only to their own detriment.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.