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College Spirit: Why are student populations so detached from third-level GAA?

The media coverage for third-level competition may be scarce, but why should they bother when even the students themselves don’t really care?

Imagine a situation where 15 of the best all-star GAA players from different counties were chosen to play on the same team against other teams of similar make-up. These players would play with rivals and against friends and even family. Except not just in a friendly competition. But in an All-Ireland style championship. Doesn’t that sound like a competition you would pay to see? Would that not make for great television viewing?

Well that format already exists, in the form of the third level competitions, namely the Sigerson, O’Connor, Ashbourne and Fitzgibbon Cups. Championships that are talked about, but not nearly to the degree that the quality of players, skill and talent on display demand. Every year there are similar articles written complaning about this fact. Why are only a handful of  news organisations interested in these competitions? Why are they never shown on television? Basically, why do they never get the coverage they deserve?

But before we look at whether the nation is interested in these competitions, we have to really question whether the college communities themselves are interested in supporting them. For example, last Thursday UL faced UCC in the quarter-final stage of the Fitzgibbon Cup. Anyone who follows the competition knows the significance of this fixture. Two huge rivals littered with inter-county stars from across Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Clare and further afield.

Some of the best names in the business fighting it out in a do-or-die game. A mouth-watering prospect for any GAA fan. And sure enough, a huge crowd, worthy of the fixture turned up. But not to support, simply to observe. When UL struck the net for the first time, a wave of applause spread through the crowd. After that, despite the great play, barely a murmur save for one collective sigh of admiration at a piece of epic skill from Tony Kelly.

Similarly at the Ashbourne Finals Weekend in Galway, 12 teams were battling it out but the only people cheering them on were the coaches and staff, substitutes and a handful of parents. Not to mention the fact that the word ‘Ashbourne’ did not grace the print editions of Sunday’s papers. I’m not naïve in thinking that students should travel huge distances to support but that is where the power of social media kicks in. A quick tweet or ‘best of luck’ message is quick and small, but also very motivating.

The question is, why is the student population so detached from a team of their peers that is wearing their college crest and representing them? Why are these games viewed as simply a way of passing the time in between classes? You would think that if one lived in a GAA-mad parish anywhere in Ireland for four years they would gain an affiliation to the local club so why is that not happening at college level? On top of training for their county and their club, these players make it their business to be fit and available to put on the college jersey. That is, of course, as well as dealing with their college work and any part-time job. These aren’t competitions that are played with one eye on the weekend’s league fixture, these players give everything they have, turning over huge portions of their college lives to these teams, holding nothing back.

In that sense, you cannot blame the national media for not making room for huge coverage of a competition that barely grabs the attention of students who study alongside the players. So this problem needs to be adressed at a smaller level before taking on the whole country. You could say that more backing from the GAA and more logical fixtures would help but simple ideas are often the best. Like any club, college teams need to be marketed properly, have a strong online presence and engages with those around them and they need to bend to the needs and wants of those they are trying to advertise to.

Last week, IT Carlow tweeted that they would be providing a bus for students and staff who want to travel to the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final on Tuesday night in Waterford to support their team, for a small fee. Similarly, when UL reached the final in Pairc Ui Rinn three years ago, a bus packed with excited supporters from the college arrived and because they had made that effort, those who travelled ensured their voices were heard.

I think the players are well aware of the fact that they will always be better known for their inter-county or club exploits rather than what they achieve at college. They know that they will very rarely hit the headlines in these competitions but hoping for a little support within their own college should not be an unrealistic expectation. Not for a player that sacrifices so much to be able to put on the jersey.

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