Analysis: the hurling and football championships herald the start of summer, but the new formats also bring a lot of anticipation about what this means for the GAA's finances

This year’s upcoming football and hurling GAA championship season will be interesting for a number of reasons. Dublin are chasing a fourth All-Ireland title in a row, the first time this will be attempted since the great Kerry team of the 1980s. In contrast, the hurling championship appears to be wide open, the unique pairing of Galway and Waterford in last year’s final adding to the sense that any one of a number of teams could win the title this year. 

But another element adds to the anticipation and that is the introduction of new championship structures. In football, a round robin group phase has been introduced for the eight quarter finalists, while both the Munster and Leinster hurling competitions will be played off in a similar format. What all this means is that there will be a greater number of higher quality matches in both codes which should add enormously to the championships.

"Outcome uncertainty is also a factor for the competition in general" Photo: Brian Lawless Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

One of the immediate benefits for the GAA should be an increase in overall attendance figures. Despite the increase in sponsorship and TV deals over the last number of years, attendances still represent the most important source of revenue for the GAA. According to the latest GAA Financial Annual Report, gate receipts provided over half of the GAA’s income in 2017, totalling €34.4 million. This figure represented an increase of €4 million on 2016’s gate receipts due to higher average attendances per championship match, particularly in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series.

While one would expect gate receipts to increase significantly this season given the increased number of games, this may not be as straightforward as it first appears. In order to predict the demand for a product, economists try to identify the underlying factors which determine demand and then examine the likely effect that changes in these factors would have on demand. Luckily there is a large amount of research in the area of sport economics which has identified a range of factors which affect attendance demand which we can refer to.

Will this be one of the sights of the summer? Kilkenny manager Brian Cody patrols the sideline on All-Ireland hurling final day. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

Clearly, the importance of the game in question has a strong influence on attendances. That is why attendances are much higher for the latter stages of the All-Ireland series relative to other stages of the football and hurling competitions. The teams involved also have an effect for a number of reasons. Outcome uncertainty, which relates to the predictability of the result, suggests that two evenly matched teams would generate greater interest and a higher attendance relative to two unevenly matched teams, all else being equal. Somewhat related to this is the relative success of both teams in recent games. The GAA, for example, highlight the re-emergence of Wexford and the successful runs of Cork and Waterford as one of the reasons for increases in hurling attendances last year.  

Outcome uncertainty is also a factor for the competition in general. The more competitively balanced the competition is, the higher the level of interest relative to a competition which is dominated by a few teams only. Economic and social factors can also play a part including ticket prices, costs of travelling to a match and changes in household incomes. Constraints imposed by the stadium capacity, the population of the counties involved and even the weather can also be listed as factors affecting attendance levels.

Mayo fans will be hoping this is not one of the sights of 2018. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images

So what can these variables tell us about what might happen to attendances this year and beyond? Having a round robin format reduces the importance of these games as losing them is not as crucial as losing a knock-out game. A round robin set-up also ideally requires that the teams participating to be reasonably evenly matched.

While an underdog can come out on top in a knock-out game, the element of surprise is reduced in a series of round robin games. Having more evenly matched teams will thus reduce the predictability of the overall outcome. The new Munster hurling championship is one that many supporters are looking forward to for this reason.

What the GAA would like to see every Sunday: the attendance at the 2014 All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

But this may become problematic with the new football quarter finals format. It can be argued that the football championship is unbalanced at the moment. Since 2013, Dublin, Kerry and Mayo have appeared in every semi-final so it would be a major surprise if they didn’t appear in the quarter finals this year. If these counties do appear, they would also be favourites to go onto the semi-finals once again because beating the likes of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo once is possible, but twice and a third time is unlikely as it stands. In short, the semi-finalists could become too predictable thus negatively impacting attendances for the quarter finals.

Mixed in with the all of the above are the increased economic costs to supporters. Hurling supporters will have approximately twice as many games to attend compared to previous years. The football supporters of those teams reaching the quarter finals will also have extra games. The fact that they will take place on successive weekends will also be a factor. Therefore, it is likely that supporters will be more constrained in the number of matches that they can attend relative to previous years.

The boys of summer...2017. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

In summary, while overall attendances will most likely increase, average attendances per game may not. There are two implications to this. Firstly, the GAA themselves admit that they are reliant on attendances for matches staged in Croke Park toward the latter stages of the All-Ireland championships. If sell outs or large attendances in Croke Park are less frequent this may become a concern for GAA officials. Secondly, the costs associated with the staging of matches and the preparation of teams will increase next year in line with the extra matches.

As a result, the costs' side of the balance sheet may increase at a faster rate than the revenue side of the balance sheet. It's no wonder that the GAA themselves state that the likely financial impact remains a little unclear. Along with many other aspects of this year’s hurling and football championships, I am sure they are waiting with interest to see the effect of the new structures on attendances and the bottom line.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ