Tuesday 16 January 2018

Bond plan could pay dividend for centre

John Greene

John Greene

The headlines the next day said the Taoiseach had given his backing to the proposed €30m indoor training centre at the national sports campus. This was judged in some quarters to be the highlight of Enda Kenny's speech last Wednesday as he officially opened the impressive new Irish Sport headquarters on the campus in Abbotstown.

The HQ is now home to 19 national governing bodies and that number will increase over time, so Wednesday's formalities marked a significant moment in the ongoing development of the campus. It was a pity then that the only bum note on a positive day for Irish sport was that the Taoiseach's speech was so full of empty talk. As one political observer noted, Kenny was "a bit off-colour today", a nice way of suggesting he was poorly briefed and poorly prepared.

It's hard to know which was more disappointing, the empty talk, or the faithful reporting of same the next day. It's a great idea, he said of the admittedly ambitious indoor arena, and "we'll look at it when it comes along". In other words, don't call us, we'll call you.

For the record, and apart from the fact that the centre as envisaged by the campus authority will cost in the region of €40m (not €30m), approval for it – and for the "incremental development" of playing pitches and the Irish Sport HQ – was given by the Taoiseach and his cabinet on June 21, 2011, not last Wednesday. The Taoiseach also spoke about how we live in one of the healthiest nations in the world (we don't), and how the Government is hugely supportive of Irish sport (is it?). This, I'm afraid, was just political opportunism, but sure why not if you can get away with it?

If anything, Kenny was upstaged by his minister, Leo Varadkar, who, as seems to be his custom these days, played his innings at the microphone with a straight bat. Given that the audience was largely made up of people involved in the running of Irish sport, this was the wiser course, because he would be fooling no one.

The first thing that should be said about the arena proposal is that over the last few years the sports campus has moved forward at a steady pace under Barry O'Brien, the authority's chief executive, and Dave Conway, the project manager. Last week's official opening of the Irish Sport HQ makes it the fourth functional facility operating on the campus along with the FAI's headquarters, the Institute of Sport and the National Aquatic Centre. There is also site work under way – at various stages of advancement – on pitches for the GAA, IRFU, FAI and the Irish Hockey Association, as well as the new centre of excellence for Horse Sport Ireland and Pentathlon Ireland which will be completed this year.

The plan for the training centre is to build a 14,000 square-metre arena which will house an athletics track, numerous courts and training areas for sports like badminton and basketball and other state-of-the-art indoor training facilities, and seating for up to 2,000 spectators.

The prospect of government funding, despite last Wednesday's remarks, are remote and the principal option which has been explored thus far is that it could be at least part-funded through philanthropy. Benefits to sport through philanthropy have been thin on the ground – despite the hundreds of millions which flowed into this country from benefactors over the last decade or so.

Philanthropy cannot be ruled out as a funding model for the centre, but it is a difficult road to travel, and it is still possible that some of the required €40m can be sourced this way.

On Friday, Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business put forward another practical suggestion worth pursuing.

Hartnett pointed to the overwhelming success of a venture undertaken in recent months by the Jockey Club in the UK to raise money to carry out much-needed work at Cheltenham Racecourse. A total of £27.4m (almost €29m) was raised through a Racecourse Bond scheme, whereby members of the public could invest between £2,000 and £100,000 for a 7.75 per cent return, mixed between cash and rewards, over five years. The response to this offer far exceeded the Jockey Club's expectations, by over £10m in fact.

The payback for the investors – and it was assumed that the offer would mostly appeal to racing fans – was that there would be a financial gain over the length of the bond, and also in rewards through price reductions and other deals around racing events.

Hartnett, who describes Sport for Business as "an ideas factory on how business and sport can grow stronger by learning from each other", works with leading Irish businesses, sporting organisations and Government on a wide variety of projects and he believes this bond scheme could work, not just for the indoor arena, but also with other developments, for example, at Leopardstown Racecourse and Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

"The success of the promotion was based on having a strong database of loyal supporters to go to, and on providing the right blend of financial and emotional return that stands very favourable comparison to other investments," he says.

He also argues Ireland is "a sports-mad nation which, according to some sources, has substantial individual capital tied up in investments that could be put to better and more satisfying work while still protecting its value".

Sounds like it's worth a try.

Irish Independent

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