The TG4 Ladies All Ireland Championship got underway across the country at the weekend with round robin stages in the Senior, Intermediate and Junior Championships.

This is the 19th year of TG4’s sponsorship and on Friday we carried an exclusive interview with Ard Stiúrthóir Alan Esslemont.

We also spoke to Ladies Gaelic Football Association Helen O’Rourke about the growth in interest around the sport and where it is going.

How different are we now in 2019 to where we were with the sport even as little as five years ago?

It’s very different now, especially from the point of view of our profile in the media. The interest that is out there in the players, the managers and the games has changed significantly.

Has the raised interest at the top level of the game filtered through to greater participation?

We see it through our registration system that there is a huge growth in the number of young girls taking up the sport.

Our Gaelic for Girls programme is growing year on year as well so we are attracting girls all the way from nursery through to the teenage years.

County Boards are assisting in the establishment of new teams and building out programmes of games as well as help in terms of coaching and other supports.

The foundations of the sport are strengthening all the time and the increased profile of very strong role models is adding to the long term sustainability of having more players involved for longer.

Has the growth meant it is now much more difficult to manage?

It is a continually rising bar but that’s fine. Every year there is a focus on the number of people who will attend the TG4 All Ireland Final. It is of course very dependent on the counties that are taking part but we are working hard across clubs and counties to make the finals day a standout offering on the sporting calendar, regardless of who is playing, just as it is in the Men’s game.

Over the past two years, we have raised the attendance at Croke Park from 35,000 to 45,000 and then to 50,000 last year.

Building on that base is now important and this year we are hosting a double header of the two semi-finals at Croke Park which will hopefully give another boost and extend the reach of the Championship further still.

The GAA has been very supportive in terms of not only those games but in making County Grounds available across the country.

You now sit on the GAA’s Management Committee, alongside Sinéad McNulty from the Camogie Association. How have you found that and has it been a meaningful engagement?

The Memorandum of understanding between the two Associations and the GAA are tailored to each of our specific needs and are working very well.

There were areas that we identified in terms of facilities, communication and facilities and over the past year there has been substantial progress in those areas.

There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes as well to bring what we do closer together.

We are not on the Management Committee to ‘represent’ the LGFA and the Camogie Association. We are there to bring a different voice and contribute across the broad range of activities that are undertaken in Gaelic Games in every community of the country.

How important have sponsors like TG4, Lidl and AIG been in raising profile and coverage?

It has been great. Brands can bring a level of investment into producing content that we could only dream of. We always felt that if people can see our games that they will follow them.

Seeing the calibre of the sport and the skill of the players, as well as getting to know the players has been really important.

Lidl coming on board brought a new surge in terms of visibility in all their stores and on billboards and TV ads. That has made an enormous difference and having them work so closely together with us and each other has delivered a real sense of a sport on the rise, that people want to play and be involved with.

In the past, like any smaller sporting association we might have protected our sponsors and kept them very much in their lines when it came to different assets but what we have found over recent years is that by enabling and encouraging a greater sense of collaboration we can all achieve so much more.

The increased interest in Women’s Sport is spread across a lot of different sports. Ladies Football has long been the main way in which girls have engaged with team sport. Is it a challenge now that football and rugby and hockety and basketball are all coming more to the fore?

I think it is great that there is so much choice now. There are a lot of reasons why young girls fall away from sport and we need to be aware of all the aspects of team management so that we can make it a great environment to be involved in.

We have to make sure that we keep enough space for fun as well as the competitive side of the sport. We introduced a Gaelic for Teens programme that looks at encouraging girls to start but also to stay.

Finally, the Football World Cup Final had two teams both managed by Women. Are we seeing enough women coming into the sport beyond the fifteen players, in roles of leadership and coaching?

We are seeing a lot more players coming back and getting involved in their clubs and schools.

We commenced a Leadership Programme this year where we are looking at giving women the confidence to get involved in refereeing, coaching, management and all aspects of the game.

It is always the case that we should have the best managers and coaches for teams regardless of gender, and that should apply to Men’s sport as well as Women’s, but it is not something that you can force.

It will happen over time as more women are given the confidence to take the time and make the investment in yourself to become an intrinsic part of the sport even after you have finished playing.