Friday, July 30, 2010

Falling GAA Attendances - Of Course It's Economic

The All-Ireland quarter-finals on the August Bank Holiday weekend were the shining proof that the qualifier system worked, once. Full houses on two, or maybe even three, days, the city en carnivale as the nation celebrated its Gaelic games.

That was then. Now, the GAA will count itself lucky to get eighty thousand people in total through the turnstiles for all four games. There was an extra-ordinarily ungracious movement in 2006 to have the Tommy Murphy Cup final moved from Croke Park in order to make way for more Dublin fans for the semi-final against Mayo that was on later that day. The GAA would be very grateful to know where exactly those Dublin fans have been this year, that were beating down the gates to that extent four years ago.

Tom Humphries' Locker Room column in the Irish Times last Monday week argued that the fans are not staying away for reasons of economics. Humphries dismisses the argument in a sentence, claiming that “if the elasticity of demand for tickets to sporting events were price-related Gaelic Games would fare well being comparatively cheap and good value entertainment.”

To which An Spailpín cannot but wonder: what sporting events? What events in Ireland compete with the Championship? The only team game comparisons that An Spailpín can think of are rugby, for which you cannot buy a ticket, and domestic soccer, for which you cannot give the tickets away.

Ireland isn’t like the States, where the major sports compete with each other. In team sports in Ireland, there has been the GAA and then there has been the rest. Club rugby’s profile has taken off with the arrival of professionalism – and the redefinition of “club” of course - but whether that’s something that will last is worthy of a post in itself. Perhaps when the leaves start falling.

In the meantime, An Spailpín’s dollar says that the failing attendances are due to economic factors. Economics, as Tim Harford as Steven Levitt have pointed out, is about more than the price on the packet. There is a such a thing as inherent value, and the inherent value of a Championship is lessened by its current formats.

The double header was made much of in the glory years, with a lot of old blather about your day being just backed with Gaelic games goodness. Well, not quite. It’s like those multiple DVD sets you see in HMV. You might want to watch one, maybe two, but never all three. And that’s why they package them – because there’s no way they’ll move the glugger otherwise.

The double header format is like its odious twin from the Tiger years, the two bedroom apartment. A format that allows the seller to maximise profit to the disadvantage of the buyer. Double header formats are value for money for the fan if your team wins the first game and will play the winners of the second. Otherwise, it’s an extra twenty bucks tariff on your ticket price. But back in the Tiger days – what was twenty bucks?

The double header name comes from baseball. But the only reason – the only reason – they play double headers in baseball is because games are lost to rain during the season and it’s only by playing two games on one day later in the summer that they can catch up, as baseball is played daily.

Nobody pretends that a double header is some sort of bargain. It’s a necessary evil to play a 162 game regular season. The double header format for Championship games here is the second bedroom in the apartment – what you don’t need and can’t afford, but what generated some serious cash in boom times.

And the other problem is the back door system itself, of course. After ten years, it’s obvious the back door favours the strong and punishes the weak. The only chance weaker counties had of glory in the old system was shocking a power. Now that’s gone because the power can dust himself off and rise again, making damn sure not to get caught the second time. One of the reasons that attendances are down until now is because it’s only now that they’re playing for keeps. It’s happened year after year, and in both codes.

Tom Humphries sets great store in the Locker Room piece already quoted about what a glorious game Waterford’s win in 2004 Munster hurling final was. All An Spailpín knows of it is this – that the team that lost that 2004 Munster final, Cork, went on to win the All-Ireland. Not every team can win the All-Ireland of course, but did Cork’s winning the All-Ireland then devalue the Munster win for Waterford? Ask yourself which of them was happier that Christmas, and you have your answer.

Enjoy the football at the weekend. For anyone that has any money left after following An Spailpín’s tale of woe this season, two bets. A small tickle on Roscommon against Cork, because that 8/1 price is an insult, and if anyone has a market on sendings-off in the Dublin v Tyrone game, that could be worth a tickle too. It won’t be pretty in those trenches on Saturday evening.