While most popular team sports globally follow a playing season that mirrors that of the academic cycle (Aug-May), there are some examples of those that do not. On these islands netball, rugby league and most domestic soccer in Ireland are exceptions and play through the summer. However, the most obvious example of this in Ireland can be witnessed in Gaelic Games (GAA).
While GAA is now effectively played all year round with clubs, county, schools and 3rd level matches scheduled from January to December, the most significant games are held between around April and September. Under normal circumstances we would all be preparing for upcoming inter-county games across all codes of the sport (football and hurling). Sadly, Covid-19 has put pay to this and one can only wonder when the Championships will commence.
The competition design of these must now be under consideration. For more than 100 years, counties played each other based on geographic location, across 4 different provinces. A straight knockout system was employed so that the 4 area winners met in 2 semi-finals and a final. The winner of the final was crowned the All-Ireland Champion.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, both hurling and football deviated from the traditional competition style and a "back-door system" was introduced. Put simply, this separated the provincial championships and All-Ireland series so that counties had 2 chances of success but could only be beaten once in either competition.
Further changes have happened over the years and the system is now quite complicated for passive observers. For example, the football championship goes from knock-out (Provincial Championship) to league (Super 8s) to knock-out (All-Ireland). The upshot of all these competition changes is more games. More games means more tickets sold in total (average match attendance has declined) and more broadcasting revenue.
Attendees at our recent research event in county Kerry will also know that the design changes also decreased competitive balance. John Considine's research demonstrated this and provided an insight into how stronger teams are now more dominant. Removing a straight knockout reduced the role of luck and has made it harder for underdogs to win outright.
The pandemic we find ourselves in has seen the postponement of the GAA Championships. Assuming it can restart in June or July, this could mean a reduction in the number of games. Could a return to the traditional knockout format be the solution? It served us well for more than 100 years and could be employed for a one-off event under these unprecedented circumstance.
If straight knockout is introduced, the chances of a shock winner will increase. Less traditionally successful teams would only have to beat one of the "big" counties once to end their season. The likes of Dublin, Kerry, Kilkenny and Tipperary will only get once chance. It could result in winners like Galway, Wexford, Mayo or Waterford. The latter two are waiting a combined 130 years to regain the titles that last one.
For example, in 2004 Wexford shocked Kilkenny to win the Leinster Championship. Waterford did the same in Munster to win only their seond title since 1963. Under the old rules both would have reached the semi-finals and competed with Antrim and Galway. One, if not both, would have almost certainly made the Final. Neither was in the All-Ireland Final. Instead Cork played Kilkenny, both of which had lost their respective provincial finals.
What excitement a return to a straight knockout would bring. Competitive balance may be the biggest winner of all.