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Time to give our camogie players appropriate stage

The camogie championships are in full swing, but despite the best efforts of sponsors and marketing they are an overlooked entity in comparison to their male counterparts.

Combat sports may not have the most distinguished history in championing gender equality and feminine rights but in recent years, many other sports could follow their lead in affording their female protagonists an appropriate stage to display their talents. From MMA to WWE to women’s boxing, their elite female performers have been afforded the opportunity to share the main stage in the big events with their male colleagues. In 2015, over 56,000 people were in attendance as Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm competed as the headline act of UFC 193. Earlier this year, our own Becky Lynch was part of a group of women headlining WrestleMania 35. Katie Taylor may not be the headline act on boxing’s biggest nights but she is a very big part of them.

Women’s boxing is in such great place right now and these are the kind of super fights that will really take it to new heights. Madison Square Garden seems like the perfect setting for a fight of this magnitude. – Katie Taylor April 16, 2019

This is the toughest test of Katie’s amateur and pro career, two pound-for-pound greats putting it all on the line at the mecca of boxing, the atmosphere is going to be something else. – Eddie Hearn, April 16, 2019

Katie Taylor unified the lightweight division of women’s boxing on June 1st in a bruising contest with WBC champion Delfine Persoon in New York City.

In Madison Square Garden. Mecca.

Over 20,000 spectators flooded into boxing’s holy ground on the day and while Anthony Joshua defending his heavyweight world titles was the draw, Taylor was still a big part of the big show. Not isolated. Not hidden away out back in the Gardens boutique Hulu Theatre. Front and center and ready to rock. It’s what her talent deserved.

Maybe it’s time some of our native games followed this lead and gave our female stars an appropriate stage on which to shine.

Two weeks after Katie took to the ring, a larger group of Ireland’s elite female athletes set off on their own quests for glory. These are Ireland’s camogie players and by now all eleven teams partaking in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship have begun their campaigns. Their championship has received some excellent promotion but the reality is the efforts of our elite camogie players are being undertaken far from the bright lights of the men’s championship. Isolated. Hidden away. It’s not what their talents deserve.

Dublin’s Eve O’ Brien caused a ripple on Twitter when she highlighted this prior to their opening game in this year’s camogie championship. Shortly before the Dublin hurlers took to the field against Galway in a heaving Parnell Park, their camogie counterparts were completing their opening championship game down the road in Parnell’s GAA grounds.

Over 313,000 people attended the Munster and Leinster hurling round robin fixtures in 2018. This translated to an average attendance per fixture of over 15,000 per game. These figures have improved again this year. At the same time last year, the camogie players from mostly the same counties toiled in sparsely populated venues. The average attendance figures for the Camogie championships two round robin groups in 2018 can be measured in the low hundreds. No significant improvement is likely this year. Attendance figures like this are damaging to camogie in two ways. Firstly, the income generated is insufficient for the Camogie Association to adequately support their intercounty teams or invest in the growth of the game at a grass roots level. Secondly, our best camogie players are not getting the necessary exposure to wider audiences that will help the game grow.

The Camogie Association have a role to play in enhancing the quality of their product and moves to change the rules governing contact in camogie will help with this but the GAA have a role to play here too. The situation whereby the GAA and Camogie Associations are separate entities is archaic and a relic of a bygone age. It bears as much relevance to the inclusive society we live in today as the old legislature allowing freemen of Dublin such as Bono the right to graze sheep in St Stephen’s Green. The two should be joined and their fixtures aligned. With a few small tweaks to the round robin phase of the camogie championship, a Leinster plus Galway and a Munster championship could be run along the lines of the current men’s setup. The fixtures could then be run concurrently on the same days in the same venues.

At the moment, the majority of the Leinster hurling games are played as stand-alone fixtures while Munster runs its minor championship with its competition. Those minors deserve exposure but they are in the early stages of their sporting journeys. The camogie players are at their destination.

The stadiums may not be full or close to full when the camogie games throw in but if even a fraction of the overall crowd made their way into the venues early, the camogie players would still be playing to far larger crowds than is currently the case. Having, as much as possible, the same counties on the same bill will help with this as many of the same clubs will be providing players to both the hurling and camogie teams and followers from these clubs should have sufficient motivation to at least see some of the action involving their female players. Of course double headers involving hurling and camogie are not an alien concept but never before have they been organised in a coherent structured fashion that would allow both provincial championships to be marketed as a single entity with the same teams meeting on the same bill.

Financially, the effect of this simple change could have huge implications for the growth of camogie too. Currently, gate receipts for the majority of games played in the camogie championships run only to the low thousands. This income could be transformed through a joint initiative with the hurling championship.

The hurling league especially is going to be a hard sell for the GAA in 2020. The big teams are comfortably insulated from the threat of relegation and any semblance of teams targeting overall victory in the competition is receding year on year. Why not reverse the unpopular decision to increase league ticket prices by €5 for this year’s competition and restore prices to their 2017 level? This could in turn allow the GAA to instead increase championship prices (a vastly superior product) by €5 and use a portion of this €5 as the camogie associations cut of provincial gate receipts.

This would dwarf their current income from round robin fixtures and would help with both providing intercounty squads with adequate funding for proper preparation and also allow for investment in underage and club activities. Attendances at league fixtures this year showed no significant decrease on the back of price increases so the GAA could be confident that the same would hold true for championship allowing them to use their increased revenue to aid their natural allies in the camogie world and grow the game for both genders.

Hurling is at all-time high in terms of regularity of championship games and exposure of these games to the wider public. In these prosperous times, the onus is on the caretakers of our native games to play their part in offering our young girls as well as our young boys the opportunity to dream of playing in our ‘Meccas’ on our sport’s biggest days.

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