Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Super 11s Hurling Underlines Huge Potential for GAA/GPA in USA

By Rory O’Donnell

The Super 11s hurling extravaganza at Fenway Park has to go down as having exceeded all expectations.  The crowd of 28,000 were on their feet cheering Galway’s winning score by the time the game was reaching its climax.  The game itself had plenty of everything, - spectacular goalkeeping, skill and action, and a grandstand finish.  It was intensely contested and even had a scrap thrown in for good measure.  Generally the day left people with a good feeling,  and signs are that organizers and spectators alike are looking forward to the next one.  Whole thing left me with the undeniable message that with the right support and exposure, the GAA in the United States has an unprecedented opportunity to break out of the traditional support base and attract participation and support among a whole new audience.

 Youngsters from the local underage teams welcomed the players on to the field. (Courtesy Sportsfile).

Several factors would have contributed to the success of the event itself.  The location is a central one, Fenway Park is an iconic stadium in one of America’s most Irish cities.  The teams would also have been a major factor.  Boston has a large contingent of people originally from Galway and with Galway connections. Mayor Marty Walsh, whose parents hail from Connemara being the foremost of the Galway Bostonians.  The counties involved are also rivals in the Leinster championship and this year a replay was required to separate the teams, which has to have contributed to the genuinely competitive manner in which the game was played – there seems to be little love lost between the sides.   Finally, the exposure that the game received from all of the major news channels in the weeks and months leading up to it was huge.  With major sponsors AIG, and the marketing resources of the Fenway Sports Group (owners of NESN) on board, there was no shortage of awareness in the region thanks to the extensive publicity leading up to the game.  It was mentioned during Bruins (Ice Hockey Team) broadcasts, news features covered the game, and there was awareness to the point that American friends of mine, who would have little interest in any sport, were asking me if I was going to the hurling match.  Bottom line, whether going or not, everybody knew about it.  By contrast, several hundred core GAA supporters attended the All Star football game at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton this time last year, an event that did not contain any of the above elements.

Some of the local youngsters got to play a half time game in front to the 28,000 who attended the game.
The GPA is looked on with suspicion as to their motives in some quarters, and there are plenty who have reservations about the Super 11s exercise.  Some have passed it off as a junket for the players and officials, others say that it is simply a tool for the GPA to go after the big money in the United States, and others feel that the 11-a-side format is a bastardization of what is truly a wonderful game to behold when played in its proper form.  Others have written that it is a waste of time as Americans will not take up the sport anyway, and that anybody who thinks otherwise is dreaming.

Yes, the players and GPA officials get a trip out of it, the GPA has attracted big sponsors with big money, and no, it is not proper hurling (my initial impression of the manner in which the game was playing out was that it resembled lacrosse with hurls).  However, what cannot be denied is that hurling (albeit in this short field format) received unprecedented exposure in New England and the United States with last weekend’s events.  When you marry that with the fact that hurling is being taken up by Americans in ever increasing numbers all across the country, and that there is a hunger for a competitive sporting outlet for all ages and abilities, a confluence of factors might just mean that the time is ripe to put some serious resources into promoting GAA games over here.  

There never has been any consistent attempt to do that.  An All-Ireland final 60 years ago, and annual NY Connacht championship game, or an All-Star trip here or there, is not going to get the job done in that regard, and nor has it thus far.  The GPA may have the right ingredients here.  A stadium close to the hearts of the locals, with some big time promo on sports channels, and sponsorship, will generate interest among new followers.  Which brings me to a big point.

The raison d’etre of the GPA is to improve the lot of county players, however, there are plenty of reasons to involve the local GAA communities abroad in such events going forward.  There are people all over the planet doing the grunt work on the ground to build up these games.  For them, an event like the one we saw at Fenway Park is a godsend in spreading that gospel.  It is akin to Moses coming down from the mountain.  These folks operate within the infrastructure that is already in place to bring in new participants and supporters, and have the ready made expertise and knowledge to do that.  This side of the Atlantic there is massive competition from other sports, and it is a teak tough challenge to attract people from outside of the traditional audience to the games in order to develop a lasting, grass roots following beyond the circle of emigrant and first generation Irish.  Just as at home, busy people volunteer their time to coach children, organize clubs and competitions, and raise funds to promote and play the games.  By attracting this new audience, Super 11s hurling represents an unprecedented opportunity for the local GAA to break the mold and expand the supports and participant base.  For the GPA, it is an opportunity to build a solid, dedicated base of support that will lead to increased opportunity for future sponsorship and support for the top tier players.

The local GAA was not left out in the cold on this by any means, and managed to get some exposure from this year’s event.  The opportunity to spread awareness was not lost.  The day before Galway and Dublin players did some coaching for underage kids and held an open training at the Irish Cultural Center.  The youth leagues were well represented.  Kids in full gear greeted players as they entered the field and played a half time exhibition.  The captains of the winning adult clubs were recognized during the interval and an information booth was in place so people could learn about the local organization and get to swing a stick or hold a ball.  For many in Fenway park, it was news that games were organized and played at underage and adult level in the region.  This event provided an incredible opportunity to spread that news.

Bottom line.  If GAA games in the United States were to get this kind of attention on an annual basis, the potential to grow the games within the already existing and developing framework is huge.  If the GPA and Super 11s hurling is the way to do it, all the better.  An annual game, or even a 4 team tournament over a weekend or two weekends, played in 2 or 3 different major stadiums could expand from local to national attention.  County teams are the way to go.  Galway v Dublin in Fenway, Cork v Tipp in Yankee Stadium, imagine the possibilities….. someday, the USA v Ireland?