Can the GAA stay relevant in a competitive sports market?

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Updated: May 15, 2017
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We don’t think the All-Ireland football championship “Super 8″ will keep the GAA relevant, we look at the problem and give a solution.

For many of us, the Irish summer means GAA, real sport, top level action that can’t be rivalled by any other championship in the world. But is it as good as it once was or perhaps more importantly is it as good as it could be?

The championship has remained largely unchanged since its inception, the qualifier system introduced in 2001 has arguably only benefited the traditionally stronger teams, Galway, Tyrone twice, Kerry twice and Cork have lifted Sam Maguire via the back door and for all that counties like Kildare Westmeath Fermanagh and Roscommon who enjoy the occasional good run, the mid-pack teams have failed to press for success in September since. 2018 sees the next stage of GAA evolution for the championship with the introduction of the super 8 but again this is likely to benefit the traditionally stronger counties.

In an era of complete saturation in the sports entertainment industry can the GAA afford to stand still or only make slight alterations in the face of an ever increasing pressure from rival sporting organisations with a seemingly insatiable thirst for new markets to invade in search of increased viewership and ultimately more revenue?

Soccer, rugby union, rugby league, cricket, baseball, basketball, American football, ice hockey, Aussie rules and much more have already seen the value of creating a fan base in overseas markets. Are they a threat to the GAA? How can the GAA compete against these billion dollar industries? And if they do will the game lose any of its heritage and values?

The 2018 format change would indicate that the GAA are trying to stay relevant but will the super 8 have the desired effect, is it enough of a shakeup? No. Not even close. Ask any pundit, any man in any pub, any u-16 training for his local team and they’ll predict 6 or 8 of the teams that will be in the super 8 next year.

If the GAA are serious about growing their fan base then serious change is needed. But what should they do? Where should they start? Looking at one sport that has enjoyed massive growth over the past few years: Rugby sevens, and basing the entire structure of the championship on their tournament format would be a strategy that could totally rejuvenate the championship.

Rugby Sevens uses a Champions league style structure beginning with a round robin group of four teams. For the football championship, this would result in 8 groups of four teams. Each team would play 3 matches, 1 home 1 away 1 at Croke Park, just as the super eight groups will do next year. The top two teams in each group would qualify for a cup competition and play 4 rounds of knockout competition for the Sam Maguire cup. The bottom two teams from each group would qualify for a plate competition and play 4 rounds of knockout competition for a new as yet unnamed trophy. It’s interesting to note that underage GAA handball, the largely ignored third sport controlled by the GAA, uses a similar system with first round losers of the cup competitions entering a plate competition.

Group A

Group B

Group E

Group F

Dublin

Kerry

Mayo

Tyrone

Fermanagh

Derry

Cork

Meath

Tipperary

Louth

Offaly

Longford

London

Wicklow

Leitrim

Carlow

Group C

Group D

Group G

Group H

Donegal

Monaghan

Cavan

Roscommon

Down

Clare

Kildare

Galway

Armagh

Sligo

Antrim

Laois

Waterford

Limerick

Wexford

Westmeath

(Potential Groups created using the finishing positions of the Allianz football leagues, e.g. Group A: Div. 1 First, Div. 2 Last, Div. 3 First and Div. 4 Last)

From a logistical point of view, there are a number of advantages to changing to a more ordered structure. The entire championship can be concluded in a fixed time of 14 weeks which would include a two-week gap between games baring draws.  Scheduling the group fixtures over a six week period would consist of 8 matches per weekend, 4 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday, with groups alternating between match weekends and rest weekends.

Group Stages

WEEK 1

Groups A-D Match 1

8 Matches

WEEK 2

Groups E-H  Match 1

8 Matches

WEEK 3

Groups A-D Match 2

8 Matches

WEEK 4

Groups E-H  Match 2

8 Matches

WEEK 5

Groups A-D Match 3

8 Matches

WEEK 6

Groups E-H  Match 3

8 Matches

 

Fixtures at Croke Park could be turned into double headers depending on the popularity of the teams playing. The early season draws and subsequent replays that currently choke the championship would not need to be replayed. The current championship runs during a 17 week season, 19 weeks if you include the annual pilgrimage to New York for the first round of the Connacht championship, so running the knockout stages over 8 weeks could be extended to a possible 13 if the GAA thought it necessary.

It means that all teams will have played the same number of games at all stages of the competition, eliminating the current Ulster/Munster discrepancy, which generates an annual stream of complaints from fans and the media, yet has remained unaltered. An obvious advantage of splitting the championship into cup and plate competitions is that the split is determined by the level of play in the group stages and that the level of competition in both knockout stages will be more competitive than the current championship. There is also no long-term penalty for failing to qualify for the latter stages of the cup competition as at the beginning of the following season all teams return to cup competition for the first round.

Knockout Stages

Cup

Plate

WEEK 7

Second Round Groups A-D

4 Matches

4 Matches

WEEK 8

Second Round Groups E-F

4 Matches

4 Matches

WEEK 9

Quarter Finals Groups A-D

2 Matches

2 Matches

WEEK 10

Quarter Finals Groups E-F

2 Matches

2 Matches

WEEK 11

Semi Finals Groups A-D

1 Match

1 Match

WEEK 12

Semi Finals Groups E-F

1 Match

1 Match

WEEK 13

Break

Break

Break

WEEK 14

Final

1 Match

1 Match

 

(This structure ensures no team plays on consecutive weekends baring draws in the knockout stages)(Additional break weeks could be arranged, this schedule is a representation of the minimum time frame of a more structured championship)

 

                                        Knockout Structure

Match 49

Winner Group A

Runner-up Group B

QF1

Winner Match 49

Match 50

Winner Match 50

Winner Group C

Runner-up Group D

SF1

Winner QF1

Match 51

Winner QF2

Winner Group B

Runner-up Group A

QF2

Winner Match 51

Match 52

Winner Match 52

Winner Group D

Runner-up Group C

All-Ireland Final

Winner SF1

Match 53

Winner SF2

Winner Group E

Runner-up Group F

QF3

Winner Match 53

Match 54

Winner Match 54

Winner Group G

Runner-up Group H

SF2

Winner QF3

Match 55

Winner QF4

Winner Group F

Runner-up Group E

QF4

Winner Match 55

Match 56

Winner Match 56

Winner Group H

Runner-up Group G

 

The initial criticism of this structure will be what happens to the provincial championships, but there is a very simple solution, play all four of the provincial championships in the spring after the league and before the All-Ireland series begins. A full blooded provincial championship would be a far better preparation for the All-Ireland series than the current preseason competitions organized by the provinces.

There are countless other adjustments to this structure, and to the GAA season in general that can make the season a better, more competitive and more enjoyable championship for players and fans alike.

But there is a question we have to ask ourselves, a question that we all want to be answered is, a question only the GAA can answer: Is the GAA willing to change?

When Aussie rules began raiding our talent pool the GAA stood still. When Rugby Union’s popularity began to soar in Ireland, fueled by the switch to professionalism, the GAA stood still. International sports viewership has been growing consistently since digital television and online platforms have made it more accessible and the GAA have stood still. The men in charge, who are solely focused inwards on the sport they love, are blind to the fact that their sport is under threat.

The GAA has stood still long enough. If the powers that be refuse to enact change citing a total commitment to traditional values, the GAA will continue to fight a losing battle against these larger more progressive organisations, which can only lead to its own destruction.

The GAA must not let its tradition become traditionalism. A balance must be struck between tradition and a more progressive approach. Modernising the championship will return the GAA to its former position at the forefront of the Irish sporting calendar. A failure to do so will continue the slow but steady march towards obscurity.

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