Saturday 24 August 2019

John Greene: Opportunity knocks for Ireland

College football clashes yield more returns than obvious tourism windfall

College football is huge in the United States and the target for next September’s game in Dublin between Boston College and Georgia Tech is 25,000 visitors from overseas
College football is huge in the United States and the target for next September’s game in Dublin between Boston College and Georgia Tech is 25,000 visitors from overseas

John Greene

In the week that Notre Dame and Navy played an American football game at the Aviva Stadium, the Irish government brought together a group of influential business people for a round-table event. It was a small gathering, but three million employees were represented by the people sitting around that table.

There were estimates after that game in September 2012 that it brought in over €100m to the Irish economy. Certainly the anecdotal evidence is that there was a lot of money spent that weekend, particularly, although not exclusively, in Dublin.

The influx of visitors to the country across that week was closely monitored. "The most popular package was a three-city break where people visited two cities before Dublin," says Neil Naughton, chief executive of the Glen Dimplex Group and a central figure in these college football games, the next of which is on September 3, 2016, between Boston College and Georgia Tech.

"The second most popular was a two-city break and the least popular was actually just the direct [trip] to Dublin. When you bring in the likes of 25-30,000 people the actual business activity is spread throughout the country. Every town in Ireland can feel the direct impact, they can see Americans walking in their streets taking in the sights and attractions and, more importantly, putting money in the tills of the shopkeepers, the hoteliers, the people in the hospitality industry. So it really serves as a great opportunity for people to see Ireland to get out there and hopefully come back again in the future."

It has been well established that sport's value has traditionally been undervalued. However, Ireland - like other small countries - has been slowly waking up to the wider possibilities. There is money to be made from using sport in the right way. Yet while big business is largely interested in big profits, the same is not true of nations. Of course, it's important that any investment in attracting events from overseas returns a profit, and there is no reason why it shouldn't when those events are properly managed. But the dividend can be far greater too - even if in the short-term it might be less tangible.

There is, for example, increased goodwill to the host country or city; there may, perhaps, be increased goodwill for the particular sport; and there are all the additional benefits deriving from sport, and from experiencing elite international sport up close.

Warren Zola, a respected commentator on the business of sport and an adjunct professor at Boston College, says people have a passion for sport because "it teaches so many wonderful transformative skills for those who participate - at every level".

He adds: "I don't care if you are a 12-year-old student just learning to play soccer or football, or if you're a 40-year-old still playing basketball at lunchtime, sport teaches skills that you can't recreate in the classroom. It talks about leadership and teamwork, and how to win and lose with dignity, and I think those are important things for society to learn."

Zola is seeing a shift in the landscape. "Everyone watches games but people are beginning to recognise what a big business it is, both at league level, whether you think about the EPL [English Premier League], the NFL or other leagues. And you think about the revenue those sports generate and so paying attention to how those businesses operate is critically important both here in the United States but also globally to understand the revenue it can create, the jobs it can produce and the impact on society that can have.

"So I think that's why it's important to learn about the business of sport and what goes on behind the game - that it's more than just what's happening on the field or pitch, that there are billion-dollar decisions being made that have an impact on the industry and the economy."

Sometimes figures that can be wild and unsubstantiated around the economic impact of a sporting event on a city or country are rolled out for political expediency. It's almost as if in the rush to justify spending public money in the first place - such as hosting rights, as in the case of the Ryder Cup; or in offering subsidies, as also happens - there is a need to impress. That, of course, is a failure in our political system, a failure to allow the kind of space in the public discourse to properly outline deeper, longer-lasting benefits.

The excellent blog has tackled this tendency to exaggerate on numerous occasions. Last year, for instance, UCC lecturer Robbie Butler used CSO figures from 2009-13 to calculate that the average spend per visitor to this country for a holiday revolving around leisure and recreation was €550. So, for any major international event, the key is to attract as many visitors as possible to Ireland because, writes Butler, "spending by Irish tourists in Ireland does little to generate economic activity. It's simply a transfer of money from one to another. It does impact on local economies but has no impact at the national level".

There is, therefore, no need to make wild claims in politics or in the media about economic impact because it is not just about the money spent by visitors. The Notre Dame extravaganza in 2012 was a good example. It was broadcast all across the US to an audience of millions and because the nature of American football means there is time to fill between plays, there were plenty of positive images from, and discussions about, Ireland. How do you put a value on that kind of exposure? Moreover, how do you put a value on interacting with major industry in a positive environment around a feel-good sporting event?

These high-profile college football games are now scheduled to be held in Dublin every two years. For next September's visit of Boston College and Georgia Tech the target is to attract 25,000 people from overseas. Some might argue that Butler's €550 is conservative, but even if it is, that's still a significant gain to the economy. (For Irish fans of American football, there is a flash sale of tickets next weekend to coincide with Thanksgiving. This will be the only opportunity to buy tickets here until the new year.) But we need to start thinking more about the bigger picture, because beyond that instant windfall there are greater returns. This is reflected in the slogan 'More Than A Game', which seeks to tie in the event with the other activities being held around it, such as business and academic forums, networking events, and so on.

As the CEO of a billion-euro company, Naughton is not a man for wild estimates. He is grounded in a clear strategy which has multiple strands around short-term, medium-term and long-term gains for Ireland. For him, the forging of business links between Ireland and the US through events like this is central to the project.

"We're doing this to increase Ireland's presence and visibility in America," he says. "It gets an awful lot of visibility because of the weekend that we pick. It's the first weekend of college football since the previous January and because we're five hours ahead timewise it's the first game shown after people have been starved of it. It's on at 8 o'clock in the morning, it'll have national coverage and people will be getting up for it. Also, it will be broadcast in hundreds of countries. So it's fantastic to get Ireland out there."

A big plus is that US colleges are now buying into these games, seeing them as an opportunity to not just broaden horizons, but to steal a march on rivals. Notre Dame's win in Dublin was the beginning of an incredible season for the team, one which was as unexpected as it was thrilling.

"In 2012, Fr Jenkins [college president] in Notre Dame said, 'I'm taking my university to Ireland to play a football game'," adds Naughton. "The coach didn't want to do it. All coaches want to play against the worst team, at home, every week. He was afraid of what would happen if a player got injured, do we have the medical facilities? He was concerned about the students, how would they have them back at their desks on Monday morning? He didn't want them distracted by all the razzmatazz.

"But it was fantastic for Notre Dame. They went undefeated for that season. They got to the national championship game. The coaches now have become very supportive of these initiatives, perhaps because of what happened with Notre Dame, but also the whole experience.

"It first of all proved that it doesn't impact your season but also when they are recruiting athletes they can say, you will get to play in an international stadium like Aviva Stadium in Dublin or Croke Park. It's a big attraction if they are trying to compete against another college who can't offer them that. The coaches are very positive about it. Penn State and UCF the following year had no Irish connection but they saw the opportunity as well to bring the game into an international dimension."

Boston College has a strong Irish connection. It was founded by a Jesuit to cater for the education needs of the children of Irish emigrants. It has a well-known Irish programme and an important base in Dublin. There is a strong Irish presence at its Chestnut Hill campus on the outskirts of Boston. All this will feed into this game and drive ticket sales and visitor numbers.

And so everywhere there is opportunity. It doesn't just happen, it's not quite a gift horse, but it's the next best thing. A lot of people in the US with a positive view of Ireland will be happy for games like this one to succeed. And that can only be a good thing for this country.

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