While the Sigerson Cup and Interprovincial championships are ignored by supporters, maybe the GAA could take a lesson in marketing from the American college authorites, writes MICHAEL HANNON.
With the National Football Leagues taking a three-week hiatus, the attention locally will have turned to the leagues in Cavan, which commenced last weekend. However national football has not ground to a halt. The semi-finals of the club championships were played and have thrown up a novel pairing in St Brigid's and Ballymun Kickhams. But from a Cavan perspective there should perhaps be more interest in the conclusion of the Higher Education football competitions this Friday and Saturday. Taking place in Athlone Institute of Technology, a festival of football is being offered up by the Higher Education Authorities. If you're not busy and have nothing else to do this weekend, it would be well worth the effort to get down to Athlone.
Having recently spent some time in New York, I managed to attend a college basketball game between two Division 1 teams. Syracuse University from upstate New York hosted St John's University from New York City in a local derby of sorts.
Something struck me during the contest - Americans "get it". They understand sports. They can put on a show, bring in the crowds, and sell their games. I only found out afterwards that the college basketball season was in the middle of "derby week" and every game being played that week was between rival universities. There are 347 Division 1 universities. That's a lot of rivalry in any man's language. The buzz on the local television stations was noticeable, with the bigger matches being televised live nationally.
From a marketing perspective surely this is something the GAA could take note of. It can't be too hard to look at the National Football League fixtures at the start of the year and decide to make sure round three would be comprised of almost exclusively local derbies.
But back to the issue at hand. I watched last year's final of the Sigerson Cup on television and was disappointed by the relatively-small crowd in attendance. The competition and the players deserved better. It didn't help that the host college, NUI Galway, had got knocked out. When the host college bows out early, the competition loses a little bit of its lustre. Thankfully, this time, Athlone has managed to make it to the semi-finals. Hosting the competition is a huge advantage to the home team, too - DCU, Sligo, and Cork IT all won their maiden Sigerson Cups in the last decade when hosting the competition.
Some of the most exciting football talent in the country will be on display this weekend and yet, much like the inter-provincials, the public seem ambivalent to it at times. If you love football, then you should have an interest in these competitions. Yet I must confess I've never been to an inter-provincial match myself. And as I watched 27,000 Syracuse fans go ballistic, dressed from head to toe in oompa loompa orange, something else struck me about the nature of sport. This was about local pride, about tribal warfare. We don't get that with our college sports in this country. We get it with our club teams, and we get it with our inter-county teams, but the transient nature of college means we don't hold on to that sense of identity we once had after we leave. It doesn't have to be that way.
Dublin City University will play Dublin Institute of Technology this Friday in one of the Sigerson Cup semi-finals. It represents a Dublin derby between the current league (Ryan Cup) holders DIT, and the defending Sigerson Cup champions in DCU. There are interesting stories on both sides. Paul Flynn, having played for DIT in the Sigerson final of 2009, will once again come up against his former college.
Johnny McGrath of DIT and Wicklow will be hoping to win an elusive Sigerson medal having seen his and his team's hopes derailed in 2011 when the young wing-forward was diagnosed with leukemia. Weeks earlier he had starred for his college as they had beaten UCC in the final of the Ryan cup. And then there is Killygarry's Martin Reilly, a team mate of Flynn's in 2009 who ruptured his cruciate in 2011 playing for DIT and will be aware that time is running out on his college career.
As a former player and graduate of both colleges, I'd love to be able to make the game. Unfortunately the matches are scheduled for early afternoon throw-ins. The Higher Education footballing authorities really don't help themselves sometimes. When the weekend used to comprise of quarter-finals, semi-finals and final over three days, I could understand why early throw-ins were necessary. But with only semi-finals to be played on the Friday, 6pm and 7.30pm starts could easily be accommodated.
Its hard for alumni to reconnect with their teams when they can't get to matches.
But the competition faces other threats, too. A litany of rule changes have been introduced to prevent colleges playing ringers, that is those players who should be ineligible to play.
There is a strong history of talented players signing up to do a course purely for the purpose of playing in the competition. Again, the Higher Education authorities could make eligibility more clear cut and they could do worse than take another leaf out of the NCAA who govern the college basketball in the US where everybody is entitled to five years of eligibility.
Being enrolled counts as a year of eligibility, and not whether you played or not. Professor Niall Moyna of DCU came out last week complaining about the fact that two of his players would not be able to play in this year's competition. The retrospective implementation of rules meant that both Aidan Walsh of Cork and Michael Boyle of Donegal would have to sit out the rest of this year's Sigerson. Such scenarios don't do the competition any favours. You should be told in September if you can or cannot play - end of story.
Of course the weekend isn't just about the Sigerson competition with the conclusion of all the various third level championships also taking place. From the second tier Trench Cup right down to the fourth and fifth tier finals. I can remember watching in 2005 as Letterkenny IT won a final in DCU in one of the lower tier grades. They played with 14 men behind the ball and their opposition struggled to break them down. The manager of Letterkenny that day was a young Jim McGuinness. Even back then, Jimmy was winning matches.
No pressure then on the management of Cavan Institute who return to the weekend for the second time in three years. Having achieved successive promotions, team managers Bryan Bates and Shane McCabe will be hopeful of sustaining the upward trajectory that football in the Institute is currently on.
From a Cavan perspective, we will have numerous representatives playing in the main competition. Athlone will have Killian Clarke manning their full-back line and Cavan Gaels defender Levi Murphy at wing-back, while DCU have Jack Brady looking to win back to back Sigerson medals, this time from centre-back having played corner-forward last year. Goalkeeper James Farrelly and an injured Conor Moynagh are also part of their panel.
For DIT, the already-mentioned Martin Reilly is joined by his Killygarry team-mate Ross Sheridan and Cavan senior David Givney. Lavey's Conor Martin and Castlerahan's Stephen Cooney are also involved with the Dublin Institute while on their line in a selector's capacity is DIT graduate and current Cavan panellist Alan O'Mara. In fact, UCC are the only one of the four remaining colleges not to have a sizeable Breffni contingent. So let's hope they don't win it then...
Best of luck to all the players and management this weekend.