Sunday 21 January 2018

Sport industry must be seen for what it's worth

It's hard to get our politicians to recognise the potential that exists

A committee in the Dáil is currently looking into Ireland’s horse industry, inviting various stakeholders and interested parties to try and build a full picture of how it is performing at the moment
A committee in the Dáil is currently looking into Ireland’s horse industry, inviting various stakeholders and interested parties to try and build a full picture of how it is performing at the moment
John Greene

John Greene

A committee in the Dáil is currently looking into Ireland's horse industry, inviting various stakeholders and interested parties to try and build a full picture of how it is performing at the moment, what challenges it faces, and what opportunities exist. It appears to be a worthwhile exercise.

Among the groups who so far have appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine are Horse Sport Ireland, the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and the Irish Bookmakers' Association.

At the core of this country's relationship with horses is sport - horse racing, showjumping, eventing and so on - but, of course, its importance economically has long been acknowledged by the State, which in turn provides extensive funding through the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund. The Fund was allocated €68m this year. Yes, the horse industry is a powerful lobby group in itself, and this has been put to good use through the years, but its value as an industry is clear.

Damian McDonald, who is HSI's chief executive, emphasised this to the committee, saying: "Figures from a UCD report of 2012 show that there were 124,000 sport horses on the island and that the sector was worth €708m to the economy each year, supporting the equivalent of 12,500 full-time jobs.

"A number of people in the sector have other incomes, but 29,000 people depend on the sector for part or all of their income, and there are 47,000 regular participants, defined as a breeder or other participant, on a fortnightly basis."

Even allowing for the fact that industries can sometimes inflate figures, there is no argument that horses are a valuable resource which bring employment and generate significant sums of money for the Irish economy. Yet, when it comes to considering the world of sport in similar terms, there appears to be a mental block - despite all the evidence that has been presented showing how valuable it is, and can be, to the country.

In recent years the Federation of Irish Sport, a host of sporting organisations and other interested parties, have been banging the drum on this - but no one in power seems to be listening. There has been report after report commissioned and published showing the value of sport as an industry which creates employment and generates large sums of money for the Exchequer. And, just like the horse industry, which is spread throughout the country, sport affords equal opportunities, too. Just look at Killarney in the last few days, for example, and the boost to the town from the racing festival and last night's Munster football final replay.

The latest in this line of studies about the value of sport emerged earlier this month. It was carried out by the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, and it found that travelling fans spent an estimated €11.5m in Ireland on the weekend of the Ireland-England Six Nations game in March. The total value when you throw in the full spend around the match, according to the Chamber, was €21.3m.

The IRFU has previously estimated that rugby generates €375m in tourism receipts annually, with half of that coming from overseas visitors. At the sporting end of the horse industry, it is estimated that almost 100,000 people visit Ireland each year to take part in equestrian activities, while 150,000 visitors are attracted by angling.

The average rugby visitor is estimated to spend over €700, the average golf visitor spends over €1,000.

"Similar to exports, large sporting events - and also concert tourism - have the capacity to generate growth in Ireland's economy," said Gina Quin, chief executive of Dublin Chamber.

"Big sporting events do wonders for the Irish brand and help to put Dublin and Ireland in the shop window for tourists around the world. The country's hospitality sector relies on major events and a strong events programme is key to growing tourism numbers.

"A 12-month diary of events would include big sporting events, arts festivals, concerts and exhibitions," adds Quin. "Lots of great events take place already, but the challenge is to ensure that events are spread throughout the year. A year-round schedule will help to maintain and increase job numbers in the services sector."

Why is it so difficult to get this message to penetrate in any meaningful way? How hard can it be? Irish sport is hugely frustrated that it continues to be viewed, almost condescendingly, as something of a plaything - when it is so much more than that. It is an industry, and one with truly enormous potential.

Research by the Federation of Irish Sport puts forward a very strong case: sport supports around 40,000 jobs, creates in the region of €2.4bn in added value for the economy and stimulates €1.9bn in spending.

According to its 2014 annual report it says: "This household spending is made up of member subscriptions, equipment, travel, tickets, clothing and footwear, education, broadcast, publications, health and fitness clubs as well as donations and fundraising."

The report adds: "Recent research from Clare Local Sports Partnership found that every new female sports participant in one of their programmes spent an average of €151 in the local economy on clothing and footwear." In other words, funding to an LSP is producing a return.

It would be nice to think that in the not-too-distant future a committee in the Dáil will be looking into the Irish sport industry, establishing what it is worth to the economy and looking to help in any way to deal with any challenges which the industry is facing. It would be nice to think, indeed.

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