Wednesday 26 October 2016

Fionnan Sheahan: Bit of gratitude from rugby chiefs wouldn't go amiss

Published 20/05/2010 | 05:00

THE 'Aviva' Stadium -- the new edifice at Lansdowne Road -- is called the 'Aviva' Stadium because an insurance company paid €40m in sponsorship over the next 10 years

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So the insurance company Aviva, now of 'Aviva' Stadium fame, gets the stadium naming rights.


The taxpayer forked out €191m for the building costs of the new stadium.

No sign of it being called the Joe and Josephine Taxpayer Stadium, even though their largesse was five times that of the insurance company.

The economics of sport means nobody questions the decision to sell the naming rights.

Given the precedent set elsewhere, raking in €4m a year is considered to be worth handing over the identity of the stadium which was 40pc paid for by the taxpayer.

To show their gratitude, just four days after the shiny new facility was opened, one of the two sporting bodies which owns the stadium decided to emotively batter a government minister.

The response in Leinster House to the Irish Rugby Football Union's personalised attack on Communications Minister Eamon Ryan suggested they had possibly damaged their campaign against his plan to make rugby matches free on Irish television channels.

Going in with his studs showing, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne described the minister's thesis as "cracked".

"Does he want that on his head? That he personally brought down Irish rugby on the back of a hunch?" he said.

Ryan's slaughter by the IRFU was PR, not politics.

Within political circles there was a deep discomfort at the rugby bosses' treatment of the minister and a sense the IRFU had played the man and not the ball.

The phrases being used in Leinster House yesterday included "over-the-top" and "arrogant" and "unnecessary".

The IRFU have a logical argument to put forward and are entitled to protect their revenue streams. The business model built up by rugby during the professional era has facilitated the domestic success.

But the IRFU needs to remember the considerable support provided by the Government to its sport.

Apart from the €191m for the 'Aviva' Stadium, there's also another €9m for the redevelopment of Thomond Park and €1.75m to upgrade the facilities at the RDS, both of which are part of the €34m in capital funding for rugby clubs across the country over the past 12 years. And don't forget the €17.5m in direct funding from the Irish Sports Council to the IRFU.

The IRFU also ought to be reminded of the generous tax relief on earnings for sports players. This tax break allows 40pc of tax paid over a five-year period to be claimed back -- once the sports person retires and fulfils certain residency criteria.

A bit of acknowledgement of this contribution wouldn't have gone astray when putting the boot into a political leader.

Inadvertently, through the severity of their attack, the rugby fraternity have strengthened Ryan's hand. After throwing everything they've got at Ryan, where do they go now?

What's their next move once you've used the nuclear option?

The common sense approach would have been to follow the example of the IFA (that's the Irish Farmers' Association in Bluebell, not the Irish Football Association in Belfast).

Aside from going head-to-head with the Agriculture Minister, whenever an issue of genuine contention arises, the IFA always run a more subtle lobbying campaign of TDs usually featuring meetings in Buswells Hotel on Kildare Street.

Notably, former Fianna Fail TD Jim Glennon has been meeting and greeting political figures for the rugby bosses over recent months and his delicate skills will be further required after Browne's gouging display.

Given the status of the 'Aviva' as the country's most admired new structure, the IRFU would be well advised to initiate a 'thank you' tour for the TDs who voted for the €191m funding and use the opportunity to brief the awestruck deputies on their position on the TV rights.

No politician will turn down the opportunity to get a photo for their local paper with an international player, so the star card can also be played. Utilising the old boys' network to greater effect would also be a brighter idea than Browne's megaphone diplomacy. Ryan now finds himself backed into a corner.

He surprisingly got a sympathy boost from the rugby blazers' behaviour.

His financial argument is still relatively weak but he's in a fight now and will have to strengthen his case, while flushing the rugby bosses out.

He probably won't win out, but he's going to make them sweat. After the IRFU polarised the issue, the minister now needs a face-saving gesture.

The Dublin South TD is playing a dangerous game as he represents the leafy suburbs, which are the home-turf of the wider rugby family.

Ryan has the support of his party leader John Gormley, and other senior party figures have jumped to his defence.

A compromise is likely, probably along the lines of the French arrangement for the Six Nations and the European Rugby Cup final, where if an Irish side is playing it will be guaranteed free to air.

Ryan's European cup dream may have to be sacrificed. Nonetheless, he won't be keen to be seen to be backing down in the face of the onslaught. But if the minister did decide to stick to his tactics, his Cabinet colleagues might not be in a position to stop his charge for the line.

The Green minister has ample political capital, particularly after he went the extra mile on NAMA and has held the line firmly on the cutbacks.

The rugby bosses reckoned Ryan "just doesn't get it".

Clearly the rugby fraternity still have a lot to "get" about how politics works.

Irish Independent

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