OPINION: Double-headers the only way to grow Ladies GAA

The first Ladies National League game will be played in Croke Park this weekend.

OPINION: Double-headers the only way to grow Ladies GAA

©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

In 2012, I played in a National League final that had an odd ending.

Traditionally, the crowds that attend Ladies GAA games are of a modest number, to put it mildly. The spectator groups generally consist of family, friends and partners.

It's not a place in which the ardent or even the casual GAA fans tend to freqent. So in short, unless the people in the stands have some personal connection with the players on the pitch, there's nothing to draw them to the game.

Generally, players don't concern themselves with this drawback of the sport. Maybe the dearth of coverage sparked some outrage when they were younger, but that diminishes over the years.

And by the time they move up to the senior grade, they become pre-occupied with other matters. Thoughts about their place in the team, their likelihood of starting, the quality of the player they have to mark today and how they're going to plot their mid-week commute for training without their parents finding out, starts to dominate the focus.

Image: Mayo Ladies and Men's footballers.

There's no room in their head to panic over crowd numbers.

But in the concluding moments of that aforementioned League Final, I noticed something peculiar about the attendance at O'Connor Park in Tullamore.

The winning margin at the time was insurmountable at that stage, but it wasn't a case of me allowing myself to be distracted by what was happening in the stands.

There was actual noise descending from the crowd, and you couldn't ignore it. It wasn't the general murmur of applause that we're use to seeing in Ladies GAA games, it was a few dozen decibels above the general pitch, and it was a joyful sound.

We won the game, and we were applauded off the grass as we walked up to receive the cup. Suddenly, we were tilting our heads all the way back to take in the full depth of the crowd, as opposed to just a flicking our gaze over the first few rows to where our friends and family would normally be.

We were later informed that our league final was a curtain-raiser for the All-Ireland U21 football final between Dublin and Roscommon, which explained where the mysterious wave of spectators came from.

In any case, the extra supporters generated an exciting atmosphere for our fixture. Regardless of their motivation for being there, the reality is that they were there and for those few minutes, we had their attention.

The Dublin and Mayo ladies footballers will have that opportunity this weekend, when they compete in the first ever Ladies National Football League game to be held in Croke Park. Coupled with Dublin's meeting with Roscommon in the Allianz Football League at the same venue, it will be a double-header at the biggest GAA stadium in the country.

Speaking to Newstalk's Oisin Langan this week, Dublin's Sinéad Aherne highlighted how double-headers increase exposure of Ladies GAA games, and that's the obvious advantage of such arrangements.

It forces people to watch the game, which is the only available course of action available to those who are trying to grow it. Trying to compel people to go to the games through marketing alone is wasted energy. And demanding for equal recognition of both codes on social media does nothing to effect change either.

Double-headers allow neutrals to see the sport, without it being the only show in town. Yes, the majority of the spectators might be going to Croke Park on Saturday to watch Dublin and Roscommon, but the motives are irrelevant if we can get people in the stands for the ladies game that precedes the men's match.

Image: Sinéad Aherne celebrates scoring a penalty for Dublin in last year's All-Ireland final.

More importantly, we need double-headers to become a more regular occurrence in the GAA, particularly as the championship approaches.

In 2015, there was an opportunity to host a double-header in Croke Park that went unclaimed. The Armagh and Dublin ladies footballers, were due to meet in the All-Ireland semi-final on the same day that Dublin and Mayo were due to face-off in their All-Ireland semi-final replay at GAA headquarters.

Naturally, talk of a double-header ensued but a request lodged by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) was rejected on the grounds that the All-Ireland hurling finals were taking place the next day, meaning that too many games would be held on the pitch over two days.

The 2016 championship witnessed no double-headers, which seems peculiar, as you would imagine that what happened in 2015, would spur the LGFA to apply for it again. 

But there are logistical obstacles that would stand in the way of that taking place.

It all comes back to the reality that ladies and men's GAA are governed by separate organisations. This means that their respective fixture schedules don't always pave the way for double-headers to be even be negotiated.

Indeed, the Croke Park double-header is a progressive move, but merging the associations is the next milestone we need to reach if these fixtures are to become more commonplace.