Sunday 24 September 2017

Economy needs a sporting chance

We have to assume that the coalition government has some idea of the value of sport to an economy. We assume this because they have told us so, again and again.

Take the Solheim Cup for example. In the days before the event, minister Leo Varadkar noted: "It's estimated that the event will generate up to €60 million worth of favourable publicity for Ireland. Ireland has a proven track record in hosting high-profile international events and the Irish public is renowned for supporting them."

Presumably, given the dramatic finale at Killeen Castle last Sunday and a worldwide viewership estimated by Fáilte Ireland at 400 million, there is nothing outlandish in the minister's claim. Fáilte Ireland also estimated the value to the local economy of the event at €30m.

Another international event taking place in Ireland is the European Surfing Championships. The week-long event concludes in Bundoran today and before it began another government minister, this time Dinny McGinley, said: "Up to 20,000 visitors are expected to arrive in Bundoran -- both spectators and competitors and the event is expected to generate €3m for the local economy."

So, in just one week, two very disparate events were -- according to our government and its agents -- worth €33m directly to the economy, plus highly valuable worldwide exposure for our tourism industry.

Which is why it is more than a little curious that sport doesn't appear to be getting a look-in at Dublin Castle next weekend at the Global Irish Economic Forum, an admittedly dull title for an important two-day event which has been designed to tap into this country's massive diaspora to help rebuild the ailing economy and to restore Ireland's international reputation.

Perhaps it's more than curious. Perhaps it's worrying. Because when it comes to sport, we are not seeing a whole lot of leadership right now.

Of course we can't ignore the realities of this country's plight or the serious challenges facing political leaders, but for most people life goes on, and for many this includes sport in some form or other. And while the government is going about its business, the perception is growing that there is a lack of direction and policy in this regime with regard to sport.

It is inevitable that there will be cuts to the sports spend in the next few years -- perhaps punitive ones -- but from this vantage point it is difficult to see how they can be either fair or appropriate if there is a lack of political empathy and understanding for the part sport can play in the country's recovery. Saying it is important is easy, knowing or understanding that it is so is entirely different and requires a very different type of political commitment, one which so far appears to be lacking.

This week's forum will be attended by some 300 people from around the world with backgrounds in business, tourism, culture and agriculture as well as government ministers, key state agencies, and leading Irish-based business figures. Former US President Bill Clinton is among the guests.

Over two days, Friday and Saturday, there will be high level workshops on a broad range of areas out of which it is envisaged that opportunities will arise for Ireland. As a flavour, topics include: connecting the diaspora with Ireland and each other and engaging the next generation; fostering a new image of Ireland in the international media and finding ways for the global Irish business community and the creative and cultural sectors to work together.

Surely room should gave been made for sport among the 300-plus people next weekend, all of whom are gathering with the best interests of the country at heart. There are Irish people in positions of importance in sport around the world who could have contributed to this forum.

In the last few years, sport has consistently provided us with good news, lifting the spirits of a worried and frightened people. This year alone, what has brought smiles to faces more than the golfing victories of Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy (pictured), Ireland's Rugby World Cup win over Australia, the performance of Richard Dunne in Moscow, or Ireland's win over England in cricket's World Cup?

Politics and economics are cold and hard, so maybe sentiment won't wash. Let's look at some numbers instead.

The Gaelic Players' Association last year estimated that the real value to the Irish economy of inter-county football and hurling at €193.4m. The Irish Sports Council have conducted research which claims that for every €100 the government spends on sport, it gets €149 back in the form of taxes and other revenues.

Some other figures: 1.7 million people actively participate in sport, providing significant long-term benefits for well-being, and savings for the state on its health budget; over 40 million overseas viewers watch Ireland in the Six Nations; our golf courses are internationally acclaimed and in 2009 attracted 143,00 visitors who generated an estimated spend of €110m; and last year's Europa League final generated in excess of €25m in Dublin.

Sport generates goodwill, it generates revenue, it creates partnerships, it fosters relationships, it opens doors, it breaks down barriers and it just seems ill-conceived that it is not seen as having any sort of role to play in Ireland's recovery. It's not too late, though, for the government to wake up to this largely untapped potential and do something about it.

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