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Fogarty Forum: Munster is the envy of the GAA

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Halfway through the Munster senior hurling championship and its appeal shows no signs of waning.

Yes, the combined attendance figure of 114,310 is over 20,000 down on last year but the smallest venue of Walsh Park won’t be utilised over the remaining three weekends and four of the five remaining fixtures are staged at 40,000-plus capacity stadia.

That total will be augmented this weekend when a bumper crowd take in what has proven to be the most popular fixture, Cork and Limerick, set for SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday evening.

By Friday last, 27,000 tickets had been sold for a game Cork simply can’t afford to lose. Munster Council officials believe by the end of the week it will be close to a 45,000 sell-out, which would be a record for a GAA game at the stadium since its reconstruction.

The Saturday evening throw-in and the fact the game isn’t on TV are pull and push factors in favour of it too. When the round-robin structure began in 2018, staging games on Saturday evenings had worried the Munster Council. Not anymore.

Next year, a first Munster SHC final that isn’t a replay will be staged on a Saturday evening. Having seen so many flock to evening championship games these last couple of seasons, a deal was done with Leinster last year to alternate their provincial deciders on the weekend days in early June.

Clare manager Brian Lohan, right, and Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A 40,000 crowd this Saturday would send this year’s crowds almost 6,000 higher than 2023 after three rounds. A win for Cork and Thurles will be thronged for their final-round clash with Tipperary the following Sunday. On the same afternoon Cusack Park will be packed to the rafters for the latest instalment of Brian Lohan versus Davy Fitzgerald.

Considering Walsh Park was available again and Waterford are no longer staging home games in FBD Semple Stadium, it hadn’t been expected that last year’s total attendance number of 310,440, accompanied by the hefty €5,391,814 in gate receipts, would be challenged. However, that is a possibility if Cork pick up their first win.

Ahead of Limerick, they are the cash cows of the championship. Last week, Kieran Shannon wrote in this newspaper that in terms of sheer entertainment Cork has been better to the round-robin than the format to the county. The same applies in readies.

Clare’s sustained success in the group has most certainly put bums on seats but Cork are the reliables. Their size and their yearning is lucrative. From a fixture that attracted 24,490 and 20,834 to Ballintemple in 2018 and ’22 respectively, the crowd for last Sunday week’s Cork-Clare meeting there climbed to 36,841.

That sort of appeal is not being replicated elsewhere, certainly not in Munster football where it might have been assumed a Clare-Kerry final in Ennis would have drawn a much larger crowd than the previous encounter in Limerick 12 months ago. However, there were 440 fewer souls in Cusack Park on Sunday.

In Salthill, 19,193 took in the Galway-Mayo Connacht final. Ten years ago, the last time the counties faced off for the Nestor Cup in normal times, there were 26,738 in Castlebar. The total attendance for Connacht’s four games in Ireland (ie. excluding New York vs Mayo) was 41,874, down from 53,822 last year when their total gate receipts were less than €1.3 million.

Seven days earlier, barely over 20,000 were in attendance for the Leinster SFC semi-final double-header, a statistic in keeping with the steady decline of the competition. Wexford could yet buttress the gate receipts for its hurling championship but a 9,621 attendance at the Galway-Kilkenny game in Pearse Stadium was terribly low. When split among 13 counties, €4.28m total gate receipts in 2023 doesn’t compare to the dividend the Munster’s sextet receive. 

Galway's Sean Kelly lifts the Nestor Cup at Pearse Stadium. Picture: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane
Galway’s Sean Kelly lifts the Nestor Cup at Pearse Stadium. Picture: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Ulster’s sum crowds for their seven SFC matches thus far is less than 75,000 and approximately 10,000 down on last year. Sunday’s Armagh-Donegal showdown in Clones is unlikely to make up for the shortfall from last year when they accrued shy of €2m in gate receipts and streaming income.

In the three other provinces where football is the crowd-puller and money-maker, the intimidating presence of the All-Ireland series, not to mention the cramped scheduling, has obviously impacted attendances. That there have been ticket price rises haven’t gone unnoticed by supporters either. Munster has increased admission too but their leading product sells.

To Munster, Ulster in particular would have looked with envy as Kerry sauntered into the All-Ireland SFC series. Now they, Connacht and Leinster peer over with green eyes at just how the southern province is coining it as they struggle.

Half of Munster’s blue riband competition might be played behind the relative privacy of a paywall but as long as people attend and the money flows not too many will care. For the 50-day duration of their senior hurling championship, they will make hay, the gate receipts the equivalent of over €100,000 a day.

There are winners and there are losers, as Páirc Uí Chaoimh’s soon-to-be resident Bruce Springsteen might say. Only in the GAA’s case the winners are literally south of the line.

john.fogarty@examiner.ie 

Clare double-header anyone?

Seeing as there don’t appear to be any tickets available, it seems unlikely but shouldn’t Clare be pushing for a double-header in Cusack Park on Sunday week?

If it isn’t already, the Clare-Waterford Munster SHC Round 4 game is set to be a sell-out as a standalone fixture but attaching the Clare-Cork All-Ireland SFC to it would make for a great occasion and surely help the footballers build on the momentum generated from their admirable Munster final display.

“We’ll have to sit down and talk about it (getting a double-header), and see,” said Clare manager Mark Fitzgerald following the loss to Kerry. “That’s one of the reasons why we were happy to do the toss, rather than taking this to Thurles or Páirc Uí Chaoimh. We just felt that we’d take our chances, and have it here.” 

If there was enough capacity, it would make plenty of sense for Clare supporters rather than asking them to pay into Cusack Park two days running. The atmosphere generated by the home crowd on Sunday clearly spurred on Fitzgerald’s men.

Collaborations between provincial championships and All-Ireland competitions are rare but the Munster Council would surely like to see their provincial finalists suited. Although, it might discommode some Cork followers whose hurlers are in action in Thurles on Sunday week.

Another issue might be that the stadium’s four dressing rooms are usually taken up by the two teams, so starting the football game at 4pm after the hurlers’ clash at 2pm, would be ambitious. On Sunday, the hurlers, who were training at 5pm, togged out in the stands as the dressing rooms weren’t available.

Less than an hour after the game, working journalists were requested to leave the premises as the session, unlike the footballers the previous Wednesday, was behind closed doors. With one hand Clare giveth, with the other they taketh away.

Gavin and O’Connor in close quarters.

“Was Jim Gavin up there? I didn’t see him at all!” quipped Jack O’Connor with a roguish curl of the lip on Sunday.

Seeing as the Football Review Committee (FRC) chairman and group member Colm Collins were seated in the Cusack Park stand no more than a few metres across the aisle from O’Connor and most of his management team, that was difficult to believe.

Just as hard to fathom is the fact the two never shared a sideline together. O’Connor ended his second term in August 2012, two months before Gavin was confirmed as Pat Gilroy’s successor.

Kerry manager Jack O'Connor, second from right, watches the game with his selectors Paddy Tally and Diarmuid Murphy, and Football Review Committee chairperson Jim Gavin, centre, third from left, and Football Review Committee member Colm Collins. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kerry manager Jack O’Connor, second from right, watches the game with his selectors Paddy Tally and Diarmuid Murphy, and Football Review Committee chairperson Jim Gavin, centre, third from left, and Football Review Committee member Colm Collins. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

They were also ships in the night in 2019, O’Connor beginning a two-year stay with Kildare in August prior to Gavin bringing down the curtain on an illustrious eight-season spell in November.

The son of West Clare parents alongside the previous Banner manager, there was no mistaking who Gavin and Collins were rooting for on Sunday even if they might also have been there in their official brief (we didn’t see their reaction to David Clifford scoring a first-half mark but we hope they rolled their eyes even if the ball supplied by brother Paudie was a beaut).

The vista of O’Connor deliberating with his assistants Diarmuid Murphy and Paddy Tally throughout the game beside the FRC men, perhaps in more hushed tones, was a unique sideshow to the game (for the most part, Mike Quirke was the sole operator on the ground).

For a better vantage point, it’s something O’Connor has often done before and will surely do again but in doing so he is liable to run into anyone.

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