Former Cork hurling goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack let rip at the GAA on RTÉ last Saturday in comments before their home game against Kilkenny.

He castigated the GAA’s policy concerning stadium projects, noting that the Pairc Uí Chaoimh redevelopment has left the Cork county board with a debt burden north of €30m. It ran over budget but Cusack’s concerns were more general. “You have to look at the amount of stadiums that we have. Has anyone ever done an occupancy analysis on it?” he asked.

His question begs an answer. There has never been a comprehensive analysis of stadium utilisation in Ireland by the GAA, by any of the other main sporting bodies or by the Department of Sport. The perception that the Government has limitless capacity for extra spending, not shared by the Fiscal Advisory Council in recent reports, has given rise to a build-up of expectations that the Exchequer will fork out for shiny new stadiums all over the country.

Fixed infrastructure

Local ambition rather than prospective attendances is the only apparent justification. Only a fool would build a stadium, or a cinema or any other costly piece of fixed infrastructure, without careful regard to likely frequency of events and attendances.

Cusack continued: “We have way too many stadiums, we’re investing loads of money in stadiums and there’s loads of proposals. I heard recently that there are 22 proposals that people are talking about for new stadiums.”

Cusack was talking about GAA stadiums but the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) has caught the same bug, drawing attention to the dilapidated condition of almost all League of Ireland grounds.

State funding

They released a document in June last year calling for State funding for soccer stadiums with no analysis of utilisation of the kind called for by Donal Óg Cusack. There is just one new modern soccer stadium in Ireland, the 10,000 capacity Tallaght stadium built by South Dublin County Council and the home ground of Shamrock Rovers. It cost roughly as much as the overshoot on Pairc Uí Chaoimh. It is the best utilised of any club soccer ground in Ireland and the FAI contend, without analysis, that all the other clubs should have something similar, courtesy of the taxpayer.

The Munster rugby team played for the first time at the new Pairc Uí Chaoimh in November before a full house. Their second game there was two weeks ago, and sold out once again. Their regular home at Thomond Park in Limerick is smaller and it makes excellent sense to bring the more attractive games to Cork.

Large capacity

Ireland now has three modern stadiums with large capacity, two in Dublin (the Aviva and Croke Park) and one in Cork. None of the three is over-used. These are national stadiums and there are relatively few big fixtures annually in all codes which will sell out. Anyone who wishes to develop really large stadiums elsewhere needs to explain why the big fixtures should not be routed to these three venues, already built and paid for.

It would be nice to have more smaller modern stadiums. But how many teams would notch up the fixture list at Tallaght, which hosts the international women’s team, the Under-21 team and occasional rugby games as well as the Hoops.

Tallaght will have as many as 30 games this year and there could be 250,000 paying spectators, enough to justify a 10,000 seat venue built at modest cost. How many GAA county boards could match these figures?

County loyalties

The GAA is either blessed or cursed with a county-based structure for the main hurling and football tournaments. County loyalties still matter, which is the blessing, but it is a curse that there are 32 counties, 26 in the Republic.

This creates 26 lobby groups, ably supported by local politicians, for more stadiums which will never be remunerated at the box office. The figure may turn out to be more than 26. The Taoiseach has pledged Exchequer support to the Antrim county board for its stadium project in west Belfast.

No projections of patronage at the new stadium have been furnished or sought and Antrim do not shift too many tickets for either their Gaelic football or hurling teams. Nor has Antrim volunteered to join the Republic, just the Exchequer.

Whatever public funds are made available for stadium projects should be confined to smaller venues with modern spectator facilities and there should be an insistence on ground-sharing between teams and codes. There are enough large stadiums in the three already built for the relatively few big attractions. Proposals for expansions at venues like Navan and Newbridge, a short distance from Dublin, make no economic sense. Donal Óg Cusack’s call for a study of stadium requirements should be heeded by the Department of Public Expenditure.