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Opinion: Senior finals are our Superbowl - let's treat them that way

Paul Fitzpatrick argues that we must aim for the stars when it comes to showcasing our elite players to our own members - and then the world.

Given that the vast majority of competitions were cancelled and more or less zero new players were introduced to the sport, it’s fair to say that handball faced an existential crisis during the pandemic.

The return to play was painfully slow; a so-called ‘abundance of caution’ is one thing but it reached a point where restrictions were so severe and had been in place so long that they were doing more harm than good, denying people in the prime of their lives a chance to participate in healthy physical activity.

Inevitably, it led to a situation, too, where, let’s face it, many were playing covertly – in fact, they may even have been breaking the law just to enjoy an hour’s exercise.

By July, 2021, GAA Handball’s Ard Comhairle felt moved to issue a strongly-worded statement, which spoke of “frustrations and anger” at the “inconsistency in restrictions and the lack of a plan for indoor sports to progress out of restrictions.”

There was much gloomy prophesising about a potential catastrophe for the sport – handballers are not known to be the most optimistic bunch at the best of times! – but, thankfully and surprisingly, the game bounced back in good shape.

Never did the clink of a coin being dropped into a meter sound so good; around the island, reports were emerging of handball courts being booked out, facilities busier than they had been before the world came to a sudden halt.

It seems that, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we didn’t know what we had till it was gone.

And what do we have? Well, while the mood music around handball tends to be glum at times, we’d all agree it is one of the greatest sports in the world.

It is a sport, too, which is littered with ironies. It is a game played around the world, in various forms, yet relatively unknown. It is a highly sociable pastime yet attracts a singular-minded type of individual. And, most counter-intuitively of all, it is both difficult and highly addictive.

Post-Covid, as stated, handball benefitted from the return of players who had left the game behind. Many were talented club and even county-level footballers and hurlers. Most had enjoyed a youthful dalliance with handball, maybe even going steady into adulthood but as the years went on, other sports fluttered their eyelids and the advances of ours were rejected.

Now, though, that handball was playing hard to get, everyone wanted her number. It was a most curious thing and it got me thinking about player retention and how, or if, we can compete with other sport, principally the “big three” of football/hurling, soccer and rugby.

Nine years ago now, the ESRI published a report entitled ‘Keeping Them in the Game’, backed by Sport Ireland (or the Irish Sports Council, as it was then). The report focused on the proportion of people in this country taking up and subsequently giving up sport and exercise.

It found that the drop-out rate in Gaelic football between the ages of 21 and 26 was almost 75% and in hurling and camogie it was 60%. These findings were quite shocking; while our sport of handball was not referenced directly, there is no reason to think our drop-out rate is not along the same lines. Most probably it is worse – that’s if we can keep young men and women involved even to the age of 21.

In handball, the we begin to haemorrhage players from around 16 years and up. It is at this stage that other sports in the Gaelic games family begin to get really serious – and it is well documented that the most talented handballers also tend to be the most gifted at other codes.

(Exhibit A: Of the eight handballers who lined out in a high-quality Division 1 Féile na nGael final in 2021, seven played minor football this past summer for Tyrone and Cavan.)

It becomes difficult, then, to compete with the bigger sports, where there is the realistic possibility of playing in front of big crowds, earning prestige not just among one’s peer group but in the wider community and being exposed to highly-resourced training environments.

So what do we do? Well, it’s simple – we face the challenge and we make ourselves better. We adapt or we die.

The first step in doing that is to accept some uncomfortable truths. For the purposes of this column, I will leave wallball aside and as for hardball, let’s not even get into that.

Number one is that softball, for our money the greatest game of all, is on life support and without urgent emergency intervention, it will expire. That is nobody’s fault, per se – for every lover of the big alley who points an accusatory finger at Croke Park, I would ask what your own club has done to further the traditional game, what condition your court is in, how have you promoted yourself.

The second is that 40x20 handball, in its current guise, is boring. There – I’ve said it.

Nobody appreciates the talent, athleticism and dexterity of our best handballers more than myself; I am in awe of their skill. But they are being short-changed by a lack of imagination in how the game is promoted, the format under which it is played and how it is presented on the day. And, it must be said, they have short-changed themselves, too – elite handballers have been as reluctant to change as anyone.

Discussions on the Clár have been done to death and my own belief is that anything – even a free-for-all – is preferable to a clogged season where there is room for nothing other than national competitions and we run the risk of alienating clubs who must, ludicrously, apply for permission – imagine! – to go to the trouble of promoting and organising a tournament.

What we can look at immediately – and the new national centre opens a world of possibilities in this regard – is how we present our game on the biggest stage, to our own members, first and foremost. The day of almost being apologetic about our sport is done.

It is a no-brainer that we need to make the top grade in our game as attractive and exciting as possible. Handball matches must be an event, not just a fixture, something neutrals attend out of excitement and interest and not a sense of duty.

In the social media era, concentration spans are shorter (if you’re still with me at this point, 860 words in, thank you) and sports such as cricket and even golf have responded accordingly by tweaking rules and formats to shorten things.

Handball matches remain bloated and over-long. Floor-drying, time-outs, glove changes and shirt changes all involve players leaving the court. The gap between games in this year’s softball finals programme was closer to six minutes than the permitted two.

Think I’m exaggerating? Next time you are at a programme of games, look around when there is a break in play and you will invariably see supporters yawning and stretching stiff limbs, the atmosphere at times funereal.

The guiding principle should be that the All-Ireland senior final is our World Cup, our Superbowl. Nothing should be ruled out as a matter of course. We should start at the point where we are putting on the best show possible.

Some of this assuredly would not work but let’s go mad: The coin toss for a Senior Singles final is shelved and instead there is a ceremonial presentation of the ball by a GAA star followed by the “lowest kill”. Imagine the top MCs from RTE Sport, the best lighting and musical technicians, a 20-foot big screen, the score beamed on to the top of the front wall, the scoring format which will excite most, in-game interviews, players mic’d up, cameras in the ceiling and on players’ headbands.

Now, work back from there. We are in the GAA, the most powerful sporting organisation in the country; some, maybe most, of these things are achievable.

The festival of handball was a terrific idea but it has reinforced the sense that finals days are a marathon – and marathons are gruelling.

The ‘old’ way – Minor Singles, Intermediate Doubles and Senior Singles – was about perfect in terms of a balanced schedule. And what would be wrong, at other times in the year, with throwing in novel exhibition matches – the minor champion versus the Golden Masters champion, the ladies SS winner taking on the men’s intermediate or junior top dog.

I hope you get my point. Not everything must change but at least enough to generate excitement among our own people. After that, others will come on board. And we must do it ourselves - it is unfair and unrealistic to expect a small number of full-time staff to shoulder the burden.

More than anything, it's time handball stopped talking itself down. For all the problems we’ve had, this game has survived; even pandemic didn’t kill us off.

Now, if we really care enough, the possibilities are endless.

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