Friday 15 November 2019

College games are win-win for Ireland from both a sporting and economic point of view

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'College football as a major sport predates the NFL and that historical tradition is perhaps the major reason it inspires such fanaticism among its followers' (stock picture)
'College football as a major sport predates the NFL and that historical tradition is perhaps the major reason it inspires such fanaticism among its followers' (stock picture)
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's great news that Notre Dame will be playing a college football game against Navy in Dublin in August 2020. The last time the two sides met in the Aviva, in 2012, they brought 35,000 fans over. You could hardly turn a corner in the city without bumping into a Yank.

The next instalment here in two years' time will be the first of a five-year series of college football games in Dublin. The announcement on Thursday afternoon laid heavy stress on the financial benefits of the fixture which is expected to be worth €250m to the economy. That's obviously great news for the hospitality industry. But even if you don't own a hotel, a bar or an outlet selling green clothes and 'kiss me, I'm Irish' T-shirts, the arrival of these games should still be cause for celebration because it means one of the world's great sports is coming to Ireland.

Those unfamiliar with American sport might wonder why there's such a fuss about a college game. But college football is an extremely big deal Stateside. Its top flight has the third highest average attendance of any sporting competition anywhere, after the NFL and the Bundesliga. Even then this 42,203 figure is slightly misleading because it includes the games played by the lesser lights among the 130 teams in Division 1A.

The attendances for the top teams surpass those found anywhere else. The South Eastern Conference averages almost 80,000 fans per game. Eight teams play in stadiums whose capacity is over 100,000 and another six at grounds which hold more than either Croke Park or the MetLife Stadium, the NFL's biggest. College football has 20 stadiums bigger than Old Trafford. Last year's championship game between Clemson and Alabama was watched by more TV viewers in the US than any game in the NBA finals and all but one in the World Series.

College football as a major sport predates the NFL and that historical tradition is perhaps the major reason it inspires such fanaticism among its followers. In a land where professional teams can sometimes up anchor and switch cities, there's something reassuringly permanent about the big college teams.

Few are bigger than Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have won 11 national titles and while the last of those was in 1988, they made the final as recently as 2013. Currently unbeaten and ranked number three in the nation, they look a good bet to be one of the four teams to reach the play-offs this season.

There are American institutions whose claims of Irish links can be taken with a pinch of salt. Notre Dame is not one of them. Its Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, for example, is an enormously impressive creation which has employed some of Ireland's finest scholars.

The university has an international study programme here and the largest Irish language department outside this country. Notre Dame, four of whose six founders in 1842 were Irish, has given generously back to the home land and this series will be its latest contribution.

I had a ball at the 2012 game which featured the classic college football razzmatazz, superbly drilled marching bands, jets doing fly-overs, hyperactive cheerleaders and blaring music from the PA at every opportunity. If you're one of those puritans who distrusts such hoopla and would rather the gritty authenticity of an O'Byrne Cup match played in the rain and watched from a leaking stand, Notre Dame versus Navy won't be for you. Anyone else will have a great time.

These will not be exhibition matches, but five competitive fixtures. and the promoters are determined to bring a big game each year, Notre Dame/Navy will be a good start.

The one drawback of the last encounter was its one-sided nature. Notre Dame won 50-10 and there have been times when the result was merely a formality. Not any more, Navy won in 2016 and went close in 2013 and 2017. Three years ago Navy made the national top 20 for the first time since 1963 so they should give a good account of themselves in Dublin, even if they've been pretty awful so far this season.

The great thing about these fixtures is that they give us a chance of sampling American sport at its best right here in our backyard. While the game unfolds, it's as though a piece of the US has been transplanted to Irish soil. The experience is an authentic and a stirring one. Bringing it here is a great sporting as well as an economic coup for Dublin.

And if you're having qualms about it because of bucko in the White House, remember that the first of the five games will take place just three months before the 2020 US Presidential election. We won't have to pass much heed on Trump after that. With a bit of luck, President Kamala Harris might even come over to one of the subsequent games.

The Last Word: Murphy riding high on Gosden winning wave

This day last year, Saxon Warrior's victory in the Racing Post Trophy saw Aidan O'Brien break the record for Group One wins in a year. It seemed the ultimate proof of O'Brien's utter dominance in flat racing.

Things have been different this year. O'Brien, who ended last year with 28 Group One victories, has half that number in 2018, just a couple more than the English trainer John Gosden. And last weekend Gosden won his home country's trainers' title, denying O'Brien a three in a row.

The 67-year-old Gosden has never won more races than he did this year and quantity has been matched by quality. Four-time Group One winner Roaring Lion, double Prix de L'Arc De Triomphe winner Enable and the sublime Cracksman are all Gosden horses. The latter's Champion Stakes win last weekend was the highlight of a brilliant Champions Day treble at Ascot.

Key to Gosden's success has been jockey Oisin Murphy, who's won nine Group One races in six different countries over the past year. The Killarney-born Murphy is the number one jockey for Qatar Racing, owners of Roaring Lion, and perhaps the most overlooked Irish sporting success story of the year. "Fast horses make fast jockeys," he says.

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Marc Marquez may be the best sportsman you've never heard of. This day last week the 25-year-old Spaniard won his fifth World Moto GP title in six years with three races to spare after triumphing in the Japanese Grand Prix.

In a sport renowned for the bravery of its competitors Marquez is the bravest of them all, going lower on corners than anyone else and scraping his elbow along the tarmac so often his team have reinforced the sleeves of his racing jersey with aluminium.

Marquez's daredevil approach and aggression have led Valentino Rossi, the Italian he's succeeded as king of Moto GP, to accuse him of "ruining the sport" by scaring the other riders. Given that Rossi famously forced Marquez to crash in the penultimate race of the 2015 world championship, there's a touch of sour grapes about this.

Marquez, who was 15 when he rode in his first world championship race, isn't completely fearless by the way. The Barcelona fan says he'd be scared to be out in a boat at sea.

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The Lanigan's Ball style antics at the top of golf's world rankings continue with Brooks Koepka's CJ Cup victory making him the fourth new number one in five months. However, there seems something appropriate about this particular ascension.

Koepka's winning total in the USPGA Championship was the joint lowest of all-time in a Major, he was the first golfer in 29 years to retain the US Open and the first since Tiger Woods in 2000 to win both the USPGA and the US Open. Quite some going for a guy who had a close season wrist operation that made him miss the Masters. This has been golf's Year of Koepka.

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