Kerry GAA chairman Patrick O’Sullivan has suggested a major refit of Fitzgerald Stadium could cost in the region of €72.5 million, which begs the questions: is that size of investment really needed or affordable, and would it represent good value?
When Patrick O’Sullivan told delegates on Tuesday night that Fitzgerald Stadium “needs a major refit, upgrading it to a multi event centre to cater for the needs of the people of Kerry... [and] to entice some of the finest Irish and International entertainment acts to this county” we cannot be sure if anyone on the floor had the sights and sounds of Ed Sheeran spinning around their head.
It’s a moot point who or what the Kerry GAA chairman considers the “finest Irish and International entertainment acts” because the headline takeaway from Mr O’Sullivan’s address to convention is that the County Board is considering spending over €72 million to give the Old lady of Lewis Road a facelift.
Think about that sum of money for a moment. SEVENTY-TWO MILLION EURO.
Whenever someone wins big, really big, on the Euromillions, we will be told what Ireland’s newest millionaire could buy with their winnings: this many Ferrari super cars; that many penthouse suites in Manhattan; a luxury yacht so many metres long. Fantasy stuff.
Now consider the purchasing power of €72 million. You could get about 250 comfortable family homes in Tralee. Maybe pay the soon to be out of work Cristiano Ronaldo’s wages for the next three years. How about owning 3% of Twitter based on what Elon Musk recently paid for it.
Or you could freshen up a stadium that might, but probably won’t, be filled to capacity once every two years, and which might stage a concert or two across the summer.
There is no doubt but Fitzgerald Stadium is long overdue a bit of modernising. For all the oohing and aahing about the view of the Reeks from the terrace, the harsh reality is that when you step inside the old edifice you quickly realise it’s all a bit grey and crumbling and sad. Never is the deteriorating state of the place laid bare more than when there is only a few hundred or a few thousand there to watch a match, which is just about every single time the venue hosts a game nowadays.
Fitzgerald Stadium is at its best – though perhaps not its most comfortable – when it is teeming with a full capacity crowd, but that hasn’t happened for close to a decade now, and that doesn’t look like changing for the foreseeable future. That’s not to say, of course, those who are present on match days aren’t entitled to the best experience possible, but at what point does an investment north of €70 million look less like good value and more like a folly on a monumental scale?
The reference to Ed Sheeran above was less to do with any grá for the red-haired troubadour on this writer’s part, and more that his name should be a by-word for caution when it comes to spending colossal amounts of money on another colossal stadium in a province already saturated with colossal stadia.
Kerry GAA folk, from the top table down, are surely still painfully aware of the brouhaha caused by an Ed Sheeran concert in Pairc Ui Chaoimh earlier this year. Simply put, the Cork football team threatened to not fulfil their Munster Championship game against Kerry if it didn’t go ahead in Pairc Uí Rinn, because their shiny new stadium down the road – which cost €100 million, give or take – was hosting Mr Sheeran in an effort to wash its very expensive new face.
Pairc Uí Chaoimh, built in 1976, was a totally unfit for purpose stadium by 2016, and while it now stands as a beacon of modernity on the bank of the Lee, Cork GAA is nevertheless saddled with a debt so big that they need to host music concerts and rugby matches – sometimes at the expense of Gaelic games – to service that debt.
Anyway, back to Fitzgerald Stadium, and the pertinent question: does Kerry GAA really need to spend €72 million on a revamp? A few thoughts immediately spring to mind.
First – and we only have to look, again, at our friends in Cork – if the initial cost projections are for €72 million, we know that the final spend usually ends up quite a bit more than that. Are we actually looking at an even more eye-watering final bill of €80-85 million for a plaster and paint job?
Second, does the province, or even the county, really need another 40,000-plus capacity stadium when Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Semple Stadium and Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds (as well as Thomond Park) are all within two hours drive of Killarney? We get that the GAA is all about ‘place’ and ‘roots’ but to this writer’s mind there is an unhealthy obsession with almost every county wanting a Gaelic games stadium that is almost always too big for its own boots.
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer lives in Tralee, but we really don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to where the main stadium in Kerry should be located. But we will say this: there is no question but the best match experiences we have had, whether it be club matches or inter-county, in this county have been in Austin Stack Park.
Leaving aside the ramshackle old press box there, Stack Park has served up, in terms of atmosphere, a far better experience than Fitzgerald Stadium, and the reason is obvious: a county final or a decent National League game can fill the Tralee venue to within 80 or 90 per cent capacity and generate a real din, while the same attendance in the Killarney venue can often look like a couple of backpackers rattling around the Grand Canyon.
Both venues could do with work: a partly covered terrace in Killarney, maybe floodlights too; upgraded dressing rooms in Tralee; better toilets and shop/refreshment facilities in both, but nothing – one would imagine – that four or five million euro wouldn’t sort out.
Finally, can Kerry GAA really afford such an enormous capital spend as €70-plus million, which leads to the obvious follow-on question as to whether or not such a some of money couldn’t be spend on something better? Obviously Croke Park, the Munster Council, the government (that’s really us, the taxpayer) and other sports capital funding would pony up a lot of the finance, but (Cork again!) there would still be a considerable cost to Kerry GAA.
The finances of Kerry GAA are in rude health, as evidenced by the latest end of year accounts. Kerry GAA is, and always will be, a very marketable brand. It is well able to keep its balance sheet in the black while ably serving the needs of the game at every level from the smallest unit up to the inter-county teams. When it comes to raising money for the GAA in Kerry, Kerry GAA people are seldom found wanting. And yet one wonders is the county board’s well-intentioned ambition for a Fitzgerald Stadium revamp a little overambitious on this occasion.
Yes, the Old Lady needs a new dress and some fresh lipstick, maybe a new hair-do and her teeth whitened, but it’s very hard not to feel – and the current cost-of-living crisis may well be colouring our thinking here – that €72 million (even €30 or €40 million if it came to it) is simply too much money to pour into a stadium that will, best case scenario, host one Munster senior football championship final every other year.
Think about this too: the proposed price tag for sprucing up Fitzgerald would build the Centre of Excellence in Currans, which came in at €8 million, nine times over.
If Kerry GAA were to get, say, €5 from every ticket sale for a 50,000 capacity music concert, that would net them a quarter of a million euro. That's not money to be sniffed at, and at least it would guarantee one sell-out event on Lewis Road every summer.
You’d like to think the Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift crowd would appreciate the view of the mountains while they’re there, but the hope, surely, is that their eyes would be dazzled by the great, shiny, 21st century stadium they would be standing in. Yes? No?