Sunday 4 December 2016

Bon Jovi, American football in the Aviva and the Boston connection

As touchdown looms for the American football game in the Aviva, organiser Padraic O'Kane tells Michael Cogley it's a field of dreams for US-Irish trade

Published 28/07/2016 | 02:30

Stephen Kavanagh, ceo, Aer Lingus; Neil Naughton, deputy chairman Glen Dimplex and chair of the steering commitee for the American football event; American Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley; and Padraic O’Kane, ceo of Corporate.ie.
Photo: Colm Mahady/Fennells
Stephen Kavanagh, ceo, Aer Lingus; Neil Naughton, deputy chairman Glen Dimplex and chair of the steering commitee for the American football event; American Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley; and Padraic O’Kane, ceo of Corporate.ie. Photo: Colm Mahady/Fennells

On September 3 Boston College will take on Georgia Tech in Dublin's Aviva Stadium in what is the first game of the American college football calendar. Six months ago the future of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic hung in the balance after a weak dollar threatened to wipe out the benefit for Croke Park, which had been deep in negotiations with Boston.

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Now a game that was "too big to lose" has been resurrected by Dublin event management specialist Corporate.ie and its overseas colleagues Anthony Travel, a US firm with shareholders including musician Jon Bon Jovi.

As a result the pageantry and occasion of the American game will be back in Ireland for the third time since 2012, bringing with it two chartered planes filled with college football teams and their bands.

Getting the game here means Boston sacrificing one of its revenue-spinning home fixtures. Corporate.ie chief executive Padraic O'Kane outlined how a joint venture has tempted the game to Dublin.

"For a game like this Ireland Inc is now competing with places like Canada and the Far East and they're prepared to write cheques for €4m or €5m, which is just something we can't do and can't afford - we can afford a bit.

"We pay a small premium to the schools. Normally the schools ask for a big premium and how we have managed to negotiate a smaller premium is because it's not athletic-driven.

"We're convincing college presidents to come to Ireland - the gateway of Europe. You'll see the connections you'll make with our universities, you'll see the amount of companies that are here in relation to placements," Mr O'Kane said.

The athletic side of the game will remain the focal point but 20 networking events have been booked across Dublin under the banner, 'Much More than a Game'. These include the crown jewel, the Boston CEO Club, which will meet outside of the US for the first time in its history.

"The big win event for this game is the Boston College CEO Club, which is taking place in the Mansion House on the Friday. That's a gathering of 450, we're bringing in 160 from Boston, 80 from Atlanta, another 160 from Dublin and then the balance is made up of dignitaries.

"Boston College CEO club is the most high-ranking networking event in the States."

Coca-Cola chief executive Muhtar Kent will be the keynote speaker at the event that is looking to set the tone of the business element of the game. From developing overseas internships to cross-country college tie-ups the enterprising side of the match will look to drive longer-term indirect investment.

Initially it is expecting the game will deliver in the region of €45m, presuming a near-sold out Aviva Stadium and 20,000 US fans arriving into Dublin.

In 2012 the college football game directly contributed €85m to the Irish economy and is still delivering through contacts made at the time.

However, it is the indirect investment that Corporate.ie is now focusing on.

"We've six high schools travelling, which again from a tourism perspective brings in numbers and money, but also we've got some young men and women who will visit Ireland for the first time.

"Same with the big two teams, what's the big benefit there? These are young men and women that are at the top of their game, these are going to go on to become CEOs and CFOs of companies. In ten years time they'll be sitting around a boardroom table in Georgia where they're thinking of expanding into Europe and they'll have connections in Ireland."

This year's match is the first to receive financial backing from the State through Dublin City Council, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland.

Corporate.ie's joint venture with Dallas-based Anthony Travel is called Irish American Events Ltd, which has been granted €300,000 in State funding to bring the show to Ireland. Mr O'Kane believes having the State backing itself is as valuable, if not more so, as the capital invested.

"While it's not the biggest figure in the world. We've got the backing of a Government behind us, which can be equally as strong as physical money.

"Notre Dame and Boston will come back every 10 to 12 years and that's brilliant. But if we're going to convince a team that has no connections to Ireland like Penn State to come, we will need a certain amount of Government intervention. But we also need to convince and bring the Irish crowd on so that they start to support Irish college football or American football."

September is rapidly approaching and selling tickets in the US has not proved to be a problem, the 28,000 allocated to Irish fans however has been. Mr O'Kane said they were struggling to move the remaining tickets for the Aviva. The company has tried to minimise costs associated with hosting the game but moving two football teams is rather expensive.

While Mr O'Kane wouldn't divulge the details of the premium paid to schools, he did say that putting both sides up will cost near €1.5m.

Corporate.ie will be using basic prompts on screens in the stadium to make it easier for Irish fans to understand the rules. Within the stadium there will be banners at in the end zone for Aer Lingus, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.

Trinity College will also host a welcome village for travelling US fans with a major focus on creating new export links with Ireland.

Rather than opting for more established brands the village will host craft beer brewers that are ready to export into the US market.

"Much More Than a Game is as important to us as it is to them, so they have to have a reason to travel and make all of these connections. The fact we have so many American businesses based here, they're stunned that we have so many European headquarters of their companies based here.

"That's the one we have to push out from a business perspective. While this is college football, college football is much more than a game," he said.

Closer to home, business owners have been delighted with the impact the game makes when it comes here, he argues.

"It's a no-brainer to businesses, because the two games have already delivered in every aspect, and when you see the likes of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland coming on board for this game, they see the bigger picture when it comes to the people they deliver."

However, it is the reach of the fans not coming here that may prove just as beneficial. The ESPN cameras will descend on the Aviva for both the game and the celebrations that come along with it.

Two marching bands made up of 150 people each will play the teams out before making the formation of 1916 and 2016 to celebrate the century of the Easter Rising.

The pageantry will focus on Ireland's connection with the US. Following Brexit, strengthening US Irish ties is now more important that ever, Mr O'Kane said.

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