Former Clare and Galway Hurling manager Ger Loughnane has warned against an unnamed threat to the format of the Munster Championship. Emmet Ryan says irrespective of Loughnane’s tone or the validity of his fears, the two-time All-Ireland winner has a point.
It’s all about the brand
TheScore.ie ran a story on Tuesday quoting Ger Loughnane’s fears of “certain sections” of the GAA moving towards a Champions League* format with the All-Ireland Hurling Championships, potentially putting the format of the Munster Championship at risk. Loughnane didn’t name the who or the how but he was ardent in his defence of the current knockout structure of the provincial competition. Much like the Football Championship, Hurling operates a near double-elimination system with the provinces acting as the first phase of that format. The dearth of serious contenders elsewhere in the country, particularly compared to Gaelic Football, puts the provincial competition in an interesting position.
While Kilkenny may be the most dominant county in the sport, the relative lack of competition it has historically faced in Leinster coupled with the sport’s second-tier status amongst Gaelic Games in most if not all of the province’s other counties (Wexford’s priorities are debatable), meant the Leinster Hurling crown has never carried the same weight in the eyes of the public.
Munster has no such concerns, there is an historically competitive rivalry amongst its elite, in the form of Tipperary and Cork, and the five competing counties have all won the title at least once since 1995. Indeed the rejuvenation of Clare and Limerick in the mid-1990s coupled with Waterford’s later rise has only aided the growth of the competition. Even with player disputes having hampered campaigns for Cork and Limerick at different junctures in the past decade, the vast majority of games have been competitive and of a high standard. Essentially the GAA have a concentration of talented teams playing a series of competitive games where all parties, even those with their sights on a bigger prize, value the title at stake and fanbases that place a priority on claiming said title. Or in simple terms, folk in Munster tend to get particularly excited about Hurling, especially when playing each other. All of these factors have helped build public interest in the competition outside the province, not just from fans with a connection to the competing counties.
*I hate the way this term gets bandied about, UEFA don’t have a patent on the concept of round-robin. It’s been around for decades.
Devaluing the product
Switching the format is loaded with problems. Peaking is a concept we’ve discussed before on this site but it’s not just something that affects teams. Public interest is also affected. As it stands there are 4 games in the competition excluding replays, played in a tight enough window but still spaced out amply to give each individual match sufficient build-up and media attention. Every game holds substantial value to the market and every game is hyped substantially, two factors that significantly boost ticket sales. A switch to a round-robin format of 5 teams with everyone playing each other once would involve 10 games in the group phase plus a likely final, amounting to 11 games. This devalues the contest in several ways. Firstly individual games don’t hold as much immediate value, with everyone guaranteed at least 4 matches. Then there’s that lack of breathing room, reducing the build-up of anticipation.
An extra 7 games on the hurling schedule, particularly when the total number of games of value is decreased, won’t do much to get more TV money out of RTE or TV3. That would require a noticeable difference in gate money but despite doubling the total number of matches the public will be less keen to turn up. There would be some dead rubbers, at both ends of the table, while the public would recognise less would be at stake in each rivalry game. Ticket prices would almost inevitably come down in the group phase and even the final would lose some of its lustre, with the competing teams having already faced off in recent weeks.
Remember also that the current format, while single elimination on a provinical level, still ensures counties play more than one game in the season as they enter the All-Ireland qualifiers. In essence fans have the best of both worlds, a product with the intensity of a single-elimination competition with the comfort that their summer won’t be over at full-time.
No other contender
Loughnane made the kind of comment that would normally elicit scorn from me when he said no other provincial championship was “as important as the Munster Championship” but in terms of economic value to the GAA there’s no doubt he’s right, at least on a game-for-game basis. The Ulster Football Championship is probably the only title in the large ball code when one could make a case for it being of a comparable priority. Certainly there are factors in play that aid it. Traditionally it has been competitive, there is the substantial nationalist factor to take into account as well, and up until 20 years ago Ulster counties succeeded so infrequently on a national level that the Anglo-Celt Cup was likely the most important piece of silverware won by a team from the province in a given year. It still however comes up far short. That last factor meant that the winner of the Ulster Football title was often a non-entity in the All-Ireland phase prior to Down beginning the surge in 1991, giving it less historical prestige. Even with the province’s surge, the greater national presence of Gaelic Football combined with the arrival of the qualifier format has substantially de-emphasised the importance of provincial titles. Fans of Gaelic Football have enough other big games to care about without taking a particular interest in one region. Hurling fans don’t enjoy the same luxury.
Loughnane’s reasons might be more to do with tradition than marketing but it doesn’t make him wrong.