Sunday 25 March 2018

After a tough team-talk, Setanta aims to score with away goals

In the wake of a torrid year, directors reveal future plans

Left to right, co-founder of Setanta Sports Michael O'Rourke, chief operations officer Mark O'Meara and co-founder Leonard Ryan at Setanta Ireland, Broadcasting House,
Princes Street South, Dublin
Left to right, co-founder of Setanta Sports Michael O'Rourke, chief operations officer Mark O'Meara and co-founder Leonard Ryan at Setanta Ireland, Broadcasting House, Princes Street South, Dublin

Laura Noonan

SETANTA founders Leonard Ryan and Mickey O'Rourke have spent much of the last decade avoiding the media glare, ensuring that as their company's star rose higher and higher the duo's personal profiles never followed Setanta Sport's epic trajectory.

Now, eight months after the implosion of Setanta's massive UK arm, the pair submit themselves to a no-holds-barred interview on the devastating events of last summer and the highs and lows of Setanta's remarkable journey, which goes on to this day through its Irish and international arms.

Some of the duo's stories make the Setanta tale all the more wrenching -- O'Rourke, head in hands, talks about investing money in Irish bank shares so he'd have something "safe" to balance his relatively risky investment in broadcasting -- but the overall tenor is one of resilience.

Setanta UK might have gone up in smoke, but the founding pair, together with long-time Setanta executive Mark O'Meara are already busy building the 'new Setanta' with ventures spanning Ireland, Australia, Asia and Canada.


"We do our best to be more forward-looking than backward-looking," O'Meara says presciently, summing up the can-do attitude that permeates Broadcasting House, the building to which Setanta Ireland has recently downsized.

The trio are, understandably, more keen to talk about the future than the past, but questions about Setanta's spectacular rise and fall are answered unflinchingly. The collapse of the UK arm followed a three-year land-grab that saw the broadcaster spend hundreds of millions on big-ticket rights such as the Premier League, a spending spree that was backed by private equity houses, institutional shareholders and debt.

At the height of the hype, Setanta was rumoured to be at the centre of a £1bn (€1.5bn) bidding war, with the founders reportedly in line to cash out for hundreds of millions apiece. A year after that, Setanta was fighting for its life, and losing.

"Ultimately we ran out of road," says Ryan, reflecting on an economic climate that blunted Setanta's ability to sign up the new customers it needed and a credit crunch that obliterated the firm's chances of raising the cash it needed to pay for rights.

Questions about whether Setanta could have done anything to prevent the collapse are answered expansively.

The business plan had "headroom" in it for a slowdown, just "not enough", says O'Rourke, adding that "governments and some of the greatest financial investors in the world were caught on the hop by what happened last year".

Finance market

The financing market wasn't just closed to Setanta, it was closed to everyone, Ryan says, while O'Meara points out that "the wall we hit would have been very hard to overcome no matter what we did".

There's no doubt that the economic crisis and credit crunch played a central role in Setanta UK's implosion, but the broadcaster's failure to retain 23 of its 46 Premier League games was also a major contributory factor.

The loss of those rights reportedly stemmed from a dispute between Setanta's management and financiers about how much they should be allowed to bid. It's a topic the trio would clearly rather not discuss.

"We bid what we knew we could finance," O'Meara finally ventures diplomatically, while Ryan points out that the UK business would still have had difficulties refinancing last summer even if it had the full suite of Premiership rights.

The real point where the trio could have changed the course of Setanta UK would seem to be 2006, when they made the fateful decision to bid for the Premier League, a decision that drove Setanta's huge demand for cash and potentially put the entire UK business in jeopardy.

Do they ever wish that they just hadn't bid, that they'd been content with smaller ticket rights like the Scottish Premier League and built a sustainable business around that? The question falls like a lead balloon and several seconds pass in silence. "It was the right decision at the time," O'Meara replies soberly, mere minutes after all three Setanta boys listed winning the first set of Premier League rights as the "high point" of their entire Setanta experience.


O'Meara's sobriety reflects the gravity of the situation that was played out last summer. More than 200 jobs were wiped out, a company once valued at hundreds of millions of pounds was reduced to a pile of debt, and the dream the founders spent decades building had turned to dust.

"It was quite traumatic for ourselves, our families, our staff and our shareholders," Ryan says, though he points out that shareholders always knew "there were risks attached along with the potential of very large rewards".

It was O'Rourke who had the job of addressing Setanta's UK troops the day administrator Deloitte finally took over the reins and it's an experience he clearly hasn't forgotten. The staff broke into applause after Deloitte's speech -- an unheard of response to a collapse and something that caught the founders totally unaware.

"The hardest bit was the people," O'Rourke says quietly. "That day in London. Setanta was a part of their lives, they would have had hopes to grow within the company, some of them would have been with us for 10 or 15 years."

He lists the names of long-time colleagues, confirming their loyal service with Ryan, and shakes his head.

Financial hits

While the people element was the "hardest part", the founders also sustained huge financial hits, both paper losses from Setanta's collapsed valuations and physical losses from the "substantial" sums they ploughed into a fundraising round a few years back.

Ryan shoots down a query on the extent of those losses, but all three insist they never bought into the idea they were going to become fabulously rich.

Questions about whether their lifestyles matched Setanta's soaring profile are met with confusion; a more direct question about whether they were ever part of the yachting glitterati is met with laughter.

"Six of us down in Brittas have a motor boat we bought for €2,000," O'Rourke says, sending the others into peals of laughter. "We didn't spend too much time thinking about the money."

Older, wiser and battle-hardened, the trio are hoping their 'new Setanta' will prove more lucrative.

"The journey we went on for 20 years with Setanta UK ultimately came to an unfruitful end for us financially," says O'Rourke, with masterly understatement.

"We're conscious that if we do another 20 years we'll be in our 60s, so we want to make the right decisions and focus our attention on businesses that are going to pay off."

Irish Independent

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