Christy O'Connor: Split season flaws to put further squeeze on 2023 schedule

'The GAA can’t spread the broadcasting contract any more than they have because the contract only allows for four broadcasting slots Saturday and Sunday'
Christy O'Connor: Split season flaws to put further squeeze on 2023 schedule

Youghal's Dylan Lyons is tackled by St Colman's Tom Cronin in the recent Rebel Óg U15 Premier 2 Hurling final which Youghal won. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

THE calendar squeeze goes on, as it was always expected to, during the first couple of years of the split season model.

Tweaking and seeking to accommodate everyone is a natural by-product until the right formula is settled upon. Going by the GAA’s 2022-23 master fixtures plan, the All-Ireland club finals were due to be played in Croke Park on January 15, but they have been moved back to January 22, three weeks earlier than this year’s finals.

Yet the club season has still been extended by a week to allow more time for the completion of the provincial club championships. The All-Ireland club football semi-finals were originally fixed for mid-December but have now been pushed out to January 7-8.

The All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals were initially scheduled for the first weekend in December but they have been put back to December 17-18. Those club hurling semi-finals may yet be moved out to January, which underlines how settling on a calendar season and trying to get every competition completed within a calendar year, remains such a tricky task.

EASIER

At least though, it’s becoming easier than it always was before the split-season model. A fluid calendar was no longer acceptable for club players, while the inter-county game has become so demanding that managers couldn’t accept having their players distracted by club activity while the inter-county season was rolling.

The split season – which was ultimately borne out of Covid-19 – has solved most of those age-long problems. The general feedback so far has been positive. Concluding the inter-county season in late July was always going to be a risk and a threat to their promotional firepower, but the GAA were prepared to take that chance.

Removing replays does free up the GAA calendar but it is also financially hard-hitting, especially for big games. The Munster Council effectively saw €3 million disappear down the drain when the Clare-Limerick Munster hurling final went to extra-time.

Much of that financial deficit lost from replays will be covered next year with a higher volume of games in the football championship; the competition will increase from 68 games to somewhere in the region of 90.

Yet with the inter-county season only being extended by one week, where will the additional exposure and promotional capacity those games deserve come from? Will hurling again suffer like it did this summer?

Limerick's Kyle Hayes shoots against Cork during the Munster SHC opener at Páirc Uí Chaoimh way back in April. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Limerick's Kyle Hayes shoots against Cork during the Munster SHC opener at Páirc Uí Chaoimh way back in April. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

It’s going to be a massive stretch to cram everything in, especially when even the Tailteann Cup will have a Round Robin. That packed scheduling in a blitz format is certainly a huge threat to the profile and status of that competition.

After gaining some decent traction this year, with the semi-finals and final televised live, it’s difficult to see how that Tailteann Cup momentum can be maintained next year when it will have to take its place in the queue behind much bigger games.

The GAA can’t spread the broadcasting contract any more than they have because the contract only allows for four broadcasting slots Saturday and Sunday.

That won’t change because the GAA don’t want to go down the road of Friday or Monday night games. The ‘Sunday Game’ night-time programme will still be expected to do justice to 15 or more matches over a given weekend in around one hour and 40 minutes.

DROP OFF

Moving the All-Ireland finals into July also opened up a whole other vista around attendances during that month. After the poor showing of the Galway-Kilkenny Leinster final, which was sparsely attended, if Galway had beaten Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final, the GAA would have struggled to break 70,000 for the All-Ireland final. Even with Limerick involved, it clearly wasn’t a full house in Croke Park, despite the GAA saying so on the day.

The audience figures were good for that final but the match was on RTÉ1 which makes a significant difference. The audience figures were impressive too for the football final but they were still 100,000 down on the 2021 final.

Everybody accepts that the split season is working but is extending the inter-county season by just one week enough to compensate for what’s coming next year?

There will be a feast of football but where will hurling fit into that increased schedule? In a seven-week period between mid-April and the first weekend in June this year, there were 27 games played in the Liam MacCarthy Cup. After that, there were seven games in just over a month.

The first of the All-Ireland quarter-finals double-header between Cork and Galway started at 1.45pm on a Saturday because RTÉ were showing the final of the URC rugby competition at 6.30pm.

The Sunday live TV slot was taken because of the Tailteann Cup semi-finals in Croke Park the following day. That competition deserved a platform in its maiden season but hurling was short-changed when being relegated behind a second-tier football competition and a second-rank rugby competition.

It was inevitable that there would be accidents and miscalculations in the first year of the split season but there is far more potential for those accidents next year in a blitz format within such a crammed schedule.

The purpose of the split season was to give clarity to club players, which is what they have been granted. County boards can produce fixture lists at the outset of the year in the knowledge that they won’t be affected by the success or failure of their county teams.

But considering the huge volume of games coming in next year’s inter-county championship, the GAA are still a long way off streamlining the split season to fit within a calendar year.

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