Wednesday 16 October 2019

Ciarán Lennon: 'Visit of the Fighting Irish to give Dublin's college football series the perfect lift-off'

Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley hands off New Mexico Lobos safety Johnny Hernandez during the Fighting Irish’s first home game of the season last month. Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley hands off New Mexico Lobos safety Johnny Hernandez during the Fighting Irish’s first home game of the season last month. Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ciarán Lennon

They come from all corners of America; Dallas, California, Florida, and everywhere in between, to make the pilgrimage for the first home game of the season. The modest city of South Bend sees its population of 100,000 permanent residents more than double on game-days.

Do the math, as they say. Even a stadium with 80,000 seats means many are travelling just to be within touching distance, based in a car park that transforms into a tailgate party as sprawling as the ploughing championships.

Many return to the Notre Dame campus to connect to their past, to old friends and to be part of the game-day traditions.

They reminisce about their student days and watch the current occupants of Walsh Hall, Ryan Hall, O'Neill Hall leading familiar chants at the pre-game pep rally and wonder how the clock has turned so quickly.

Others are here for the first time, a priceless ticket secured to draw a line through their bucket list. The 'Subway Alumni' never attended campus, but they hold an affinity for an institution with strong Catholic and Irish links.

The private jets are still being guided into land above the 'Touchdown Jesus' mural in the autumn sky as the 300-strong college band storms the field at Notre Dame Stadium. South Bend International can see over 200 planes parked on its tarmac on weekends like this.

Glory

By the time the 'Star-Spangled Banner' is sung, Stars and Stripes ceremoniously raised and the air-force flyover is complete, the only empty seats in the big house are high up in the corporate section. It's as American an experience as being asked a dozen questions every time you order a coffee.

It doesn't matter that the glory days of Joe Montana and Knute Rockne are in the distant past, Notre Dame, with their national television reach and extensive fan base, are still box-office.

A young woman standing pitch-side certainly thinks so, even though she's wearing the red of today's opposition.

She was supposed to be at a close family friend's wedding but when the first meeting of New Mexico and Notre Dame was confirmed four years ago this date was circled in her calendar.

The teams had never shared the same field before and, given New Mexico's divorce rate, this was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"I can't believe we're actually here. This is the biggest thing ever for us," she beams, a pitchside pass swinging from her neck. Although she acknowledges that the visitors' role is to graciously accept an 'ass whupping' on national TV.

They are, at least, getting well compensated for the privilege - to the tune of $1.1m.

When college football usually means Sigerson Cup, there's a lot that's hard to fathom - the rankings system, the scheduling ... the money - but from the comfort of their luxurious corporate facilities, one thing makes a lot of sense.

With all the commercial and private jets transporting thousands of fans to this otherwise unremarkable part of north Indiana, the idea of inviting them all to Dublin for next year's Aer Lingus College Football Classic doesn't seem like such a stretch.

Seven years ago Notre Dame and Navy were responsible for the biggest international movement of Americans for a sporting occasion.

In all, 35,000 fans made the journey to Ireland and early indications are that that figure will be surpassed when the same two sides meet on the opening weekend at the Aviva Stadium next August 29 - just 24 hours before the All-Ireland football final throws in across the Liffey.

For the Fighting Irish, the Dublin game is an easy sell. The Irish connection runs much deeper than the leprechaun mascots and defiant moniker.

The university's willingness to enhance that relationship was obvious when the green carpet was rolled out for the recent visit of an Irish delegation, who were on campus to promote the 2020 event.

It's also apparent from the stories of the students at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and in Notre Dame's academic centres on Merrion Square and at Kylemore Abbey.

This fixture, and its academic, business and social sideshows, is the ideal platform on which to launch the five-game college football series which Dublin will host over the next five years.

It's an ambitious step forward by the organisers, Irish American Events, a partnership company split between Irish events specialist Padraic O'Kane's company corporate.ie and US-based Anthony Travel.

A five-year commitment from private and public bodies has made it easier for O'Kane and Co to get to the negotiating table with a number of American colleges.

The teams involved in the 2021 games are set to be announced next week while the 2022 fixture requires "just a little bit of paper work", according to O'Kane.

It costs up to $5m to compensate the 'home team' for moving their game across the Atlantic, before travel and logistical expenses are factored in, but with the last meeting of these two teams estimated to have been worth €85m to the Irish economy the only losers next year will be the Gaelic football fans trying to book a hotel room in Dublin that weekend.

Bigger challenges lie ahead for O'Kane and the steering committee, with universities with less obvious connections expected to make the trip.

"They're new connections for Ireland, and that's the big challenge," says O'Kane. "We've had Notre Dame, Boston College and even Navy to an extent have Irish connections, but we're going into schools now that don't overly have Irish connections.

"They're doing this because it's international travel, because it's encouraging kids to sign up for their schools and the international connections."

He's confident next year's clash will capture the imagination of the city, which will experience all the regular game-day events.

The tailgating and the pep rallies are obligatory but they also want to reproduce some of the other South Bend traditions, like trumpets under the dome, midnight drummers circle . . . and mass.

ESPN have also confirmed they are going to take their 'College GameDay' show - a cross between 'Sunday Game Live' and 'Up For The Match' - out of America for the first time to focus on the Dublin showcase.

On the field, there may even be a man from Wexford, although Notre Dame offensive linesman Josh Lugg is admittedly from Wexford, Pennsylvania.

In that first home game of the season New Mexico played their part, rolling over in a 66-14 victory for the hosts. Next year in Dublin should be a similarly resounding victory for those involved, but tougher challenges lie ahead for all.

'Competitive equity' a must for all sports 

When Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick gave his customary pre-game talk before their first home game of the season, the burning issues could have been straight from the floor of GAA Congress.

Swarbrick's focus was on the threat to college football's amateurism and by extension its 'competitive equity', posed by recent Californian legislation that would give college players greater freedom over their image rights, potentially opening a back door to professionalism.

But his argument could also have been applied to discussions about a Tier 2 football championship.

"Every form of sports requires some artificial device to create competitive equity," he said. "Sport isn't interesting if there isn't some level of competitive equity. It's why your golf club gives you a handicap. It's why pro sports have drafts and salary caps.

"They're all designed to try and create opportunities for everybody to have a chance to win. Because once you take that out of competitive sport, it's really boring, it's not much fun to watch. You have to believe that everyone has a chance."

When asked to comment on a competition that, in theory, pits the might of the Dubs against the minnows of Wicklow, Swarbrick, kicked for touch, but his would be an interesting voice at this month's Special Congress.

Irish Independent

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