WITH the GAA set to decide on the 2021 GAA calendar season on Saturday, and whether the inter-county or club season will start first, some of the early Vox-Pops taken from inter-county managements showed the varying opinions on the topic.
Crowds at inter-county games won’t return until a vaccine for Covid-19 has been rolled out on a vast scale but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. “I would like to get back to a situation where crowds are involved again,” said Clare hurling manager Brian Lohan last week.
“It would be great if you could get to a scenario where you could have the crowds back in the summer.”
Crowds are the engine that power the inter-county machine but with finance so important to the GAA, there are multiple pitfalls with running the club championships first in a split season.
For a start, everyone is going to have to deal with life through the various different restrictions imposed by the Government’s Levels until a vaccine is rolled out. With everything opening up again for Christmas, and with another potential lockdown coming again in the New Year, increased restrictions would halt club activity completely.
“I can appreciate and understand why the GAA want to allow county football to happen later in the year, if it means bringing back the crowds,” said Joe McMahon, part of the new Tyrone management team. “But they need to be very careful too because club players are not considered elite athletes.”
Unlike inter-county, where club championships would never be allowed continue under Level 5, it seems a safer bet for the GAA to run another abbreviated inter-county programme from the end of February until late July, with no club window in April.
The Central Competitions Controls Committee (CCCC) had proposed that format last week to Central Council until the GAA’s finance committee asked for a deferral of any decision, and to consider the financial implications of running an inter-county season at the back end of 2021.
Despite getting an extra €15 million from the Government to run the inter-county championships, the GAA are already set to lose around €35 million in 2020, while projected losses of around half that total are forecast for 2021. And the GAA don’t feel they can suffer another financial hit of that magnitude next year.
Staging the inter-county championship when crowds can attend would stave off some of that threat, especially when the GAA's 2019 inter-county championship gate receipts came in at €29 million.
Those numbers would still be vastly reduced in 2021 with no round-robin provincial hurling matches or Super-8s football games. But it would still be far better than nothing. Moreover, championship attendances could be higher than ever next year with the voracious appetite amongst supporters to attend live games again when the opportunity arises.
Yet can the GAA take that chance of flipping the seasons to the potential detriment of the club game, and the hundreds of thousands of players involved? With public health restrictions likely to be still in force, and probably no better than at Level 3 for the next few months, the GAA can’t plan to run club championships if club matches aren’t allowed during that period.
In the current circumstances, it makes sense for the inter-county season to come first. But if financial implications dictate otherwise and the club championships do go first, club players could be finished their championships by May-June.
Counties would obviously try and compensate with leagues or secondary competitions in the latter half of the year, but most players mentally disengage once their championship season has concluded.
If the inter-county game goes second, that will breed more potential for an uneven playing field again. The counties which finish their club championships earlier will give their inter-county teams more of an advantage in their championship preparations over counties that have inter-county players tied up with their clubs for longer.
Club championships would have to be completed by mid to late June, as inter-county teams would need at least four to five weeks training for the championship. This year’s championship will be run off within nine weeks but that was a knockout football competition and an abbreviated hurling competition with just 10 teams.
Next year’s hurling is expected to follow the same format but the football championship will include four rounds of qualifiers and four All-Ireland quarter-finals. The Tailteann Cup would run concurrently but the season would still take far longer to run than in 2020.
More games mean more finance for the GAA but running the inter-county second would also effectively see the abandonment of the provincial and All-Ireland club championships for the second year running. It would be unfair to ask teams that win their county final in June to wait around until December to begin the provincial club championships.
The only alternative might be to do what happened before the pandemic began – start with the inter-county leagues, then begin the club championships in April before proceeding with the inter-county championships.
That could foster friction between clubs and some county managers, especially over accessibility to players so close to the inter-county campaigns, but at least clubs wouldn’t have their seasons done and dusted by May-June.
With crowds hopefully back by the summer, the inter-county championships could conclude in late July/early August, before the club championships restart again, with the All-Ireland club finals taking place in late December.
Whatever happens next, the GAA’s decision on Saturday will ultimately come down to the best possible way for the season to run, and how the GAA can then finance it.