Sunday 21 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Confusing cost with value

Eamonn Sweeney:

Michael Noonan is expected to announce a five per cent cut in the government sporting budget on Wednesday. This will mean that government spending on sport will have dropped by 22 per cent since 2008. Taking capital spending into account as well, the Fianna Fáil government spent €311m on sport in 2008. Last year the total was €86m. The decline has been catastrophic.

Chances are there won't be much heed passed on this latest cut. Public and media attention will largely be focused on the cuts to health and education and on changes to the taxation system. In recessionary times like this, funding for sport seems very much a side issue.

Politically sport doesn't seem to matter very much to anyone. No politician ever stands up and makes the case for sport, arguing that its funding shouldn't just be cut as a matter of course. Yet sport plays a crucially important role in our society and has the potential to play an even greater one.

There's plenty of evidence that a relatively minor investment in sport can bring massive returns. Compare that €86m to the money generated by Irish sport last year, a whopping €1.8 billion. Irish sport employs 38,000 people and €86m was spent on sporting goods and services in Ireland this summer. And, perhaps most impressively, 15 per cent of Irish adults volunteered in sport last year, doing work which had an economic value of €350m.

Those figures are contained in the very impressive annual report published on Friday by the Federation of Irish Sport which makes a compelling case for the importance of sport to the Irish economy. The Federation represents 74 national sports bodies and the report provides a solid statistical basis for the argument that sport provides value for government money in a way that no other sector does.

The Irish public know the importance of sport. The figure for volunteerism tells you that. But do the politicians? A spending cut of 22 per cent, or 77 per cent if you want to bring capital spending into it, in just four years would indicate that they don't. Irish politicians' idea of supporting Irish sport involves making a speech to congratulate a medal winner and squeezing into a photograph alongside them. Grassroots sport, being unglamorous, doesn't interest them.

But it should, because of the frightening physical condition of the nation. We learned last week that obesity costs us at least €1.13 billion a year, an enormous figure given that annual health spending is €13 billion. At the moment 61 per cent of Irish adults are overweight.

This is putting a huge amount of strain on the health service, and yet it's obvious to most of us that even a moderate improvement in national physical fitness would have the same effect as a big increase in health spending. On the principle that prevention is better than cure, it would probably be more cost effective. And what have the government been doing about this? Cutting the sports budget. Brilliant. As the Federation of Irish Sport put it, "further cuts in funding . . . could have an impact that will not alone damage sport in the short term but will seriously compromise it way into the future. A lack of investment today will have its most damaging impact not today or tomorrow but ten years down the road."

In fact, the government's big idea as regards sports and health is one which the Federation quite correctly regards as daft. The proposal to ban sports sponsorship by drinks companies, the report says, "has the potential to cause serious damage quickly. There would appear to be a completely fallacious logic at work that suggests if there was no alcohol sponsorship tomorrow there would be a queue of sponsors lining up to take the slack. This is not true and it is dangerous thinking."

Actually, I think they're giving the politicians a bit too much credit there. I don't think the government particularly care whether the slack is taken up or not. An alcohol advertising ban is a classic Irish political decision, a PC headline-catcher which will have no affect at all on the problem it pretends to solve but will make its proponents feel all morally smug and warm inside. Personally I've never met anyone who decided to go out for a drink because he saw that Heineken or Guinness were sponsoring a match. But I've met many people who aren't going out, or who are taking it easy when they do, because they've got a match to play or a run to go on.

The government should be promoting physical fitness because it would be a cheap and efficient solution to the national health problem. Instead we have a situation where, as this report warns, funding cuts will mean that "the damage will first manifest itself in the very areas in which sport needs support – in coaching for children, schools programmes, international coaching expertise, developmental programmes, underage fixtures and tours. Nothing is surer. And once that happens the impact down the road will be lack of international success."

This comes at a time when 20 per cent of Irish children between five and 17 are overweight. It was reported earlier this year that the Department of Health was considering weighing children on their first day in primary school and referring overweight kids to 'obesity specialists'. More money for the Health Service. In reality, the best obesity specialist a kid could have is a PE teacher. And if we could inculcate our children with a love of physical exercise, that would be every bit as valuable for them in the long term as knowledge in any other subject.

Yet PE provision for primary school pupils is haphazard and few schools have access to proper indoor facilities. We've let our kids down badly here. The GAA have made a noble attempt to fill the gap, but our children could also do with more PE teachers. You could argue that children have the opportunity for physical exercise outside school hours. But the state doesn't leave them to learn to read and write on their own. So why be laissez faire about their health?

The explanation by Minster for Sport Michael Ring that the country is "more focused on higher education. It was all about getting points and getting degrees and getting the mind educated. But as a country we forgot about the body and getting it right as well" is perhaps not wholly satisfactory.

If the situation is dire, the Federation has suggestions as to how it could be improved. For one thing, they suggest the eminently logical step of sharing betting tax between all sports rather than ring-fencing it for the use of horse racing. Good luck with that one. When this column suggested that Horse Racing Ireland, then taking up a huge amount of the Sports Council budget, should be funded instead by the Department of Agriculture, the caterwauling from the racing lobby was extraordinary. When the issue came before the Dáil Committee on Sport, TDs on the committee fell over themselves to declare their love for horse racing. Nobody spoke up for the other sports.

In the end the late Brian Lenihan, who was a sensible man, switched the funding and horse racing didn't become extinct. It would survive having to share the betting tax proceeds too.

The report also suggests that the government set up a special agency to secure international sporting events for the country. That seems a good idea considering that this year's Notre Dame-Navy match in Dublin was worth €100m to the economy. PR people will bullshit away about The Gathering but that'll never have any event which equals that game. People are more likely come here for an actual event rather than in the hope of encountering some phoney 'grand old Irish welcome'. And there's nothing that draws them in like sport. Sport is real in a way that an advertising campaign with photos of red-haired colleens isn't.

Sport can make us a better, healthier country. It can contribute to economic recovery. It deserves respect, instead of cutbacks.

Because sport matters.

Fightin' Irish give us reason to cheer

Back in 1962 some guy probably popped in to The Cavern Club in Liverpool, kept half an eye on the band playing there and went home without thinking too much more about them. How was he to know how things would turn out for The Beatles?

I know how he must have felt in 1963. Because when Notre Dame played Navy in the Aviva Stadium back in August it might have been a great occasion but it felt utterly irrelevant to the big issue in American college football, the race for the national title.

Notre Dame were rated number 26 in the US. Since finishing second in 1993, they'd only made the national top ten on one occasion, in 2005 when they finished ninth. The last of their eight national titles was won way back in 1988. They hadn't even finished in the top 25 since 2006. It was pretty obvious that the great days were over for the Fighting Irish.

But last Saturday night Notre Dame defeated the University of Southern California 22-13 to finish the regular season with an undefeated 12-0 record which gives them a number one national ranking and a place in the national title game on January 7 in Miami.

Sports Illustrated's cover story entitled 'The Miracle of Notre Dame' pretty much gets it right. Nobody saw this one coming. But as the likes of USC, LSU and Oklahoma fell by the wayside, Notre Dame kept winning with a 30-13 away win over Oklahoma and a 20-3 defeat of Michigan State their most impressive displays.

Their season has been founded on a series of quite extraordinary defensive performances which have seen them give up an exceptionally miserly ten points a game. Central to that effort has been linebacker Manti Te'o, a Hawaiian who's in with a shout of becoming only the second defensive player in history to win the Heisman Trophy for best player in college football. Te'o made headlines when starring against Michigan State just days after both his girlfriend and his grandmother had died.

Safety Zeke Motta is the star of a pass defence whose impenetrability epitomises the Notre Dame miracle, given that it contains two converted wide receivers and one converted running back. And if the Irish attacking game is functional rather than spectacular, they have made the big plays when needed.

In the final Notre Dame will face the winners of the South Eastern Conference title game between Alabama and Georgia. The awesome SEC, based in that part of America often represented in film by a sweating sheriff who wears dark glasses and uses the word 'boy' a lot, has provided the last six national champions. Logic suggests its standard-bearers will beat Notre Dame out the gate. But then logic suggested Notre Dame wouldn't be in the title game in the first place. So who knows?

And to think it all began in Dublin. Some cynics questioned the Irish bona fides of the Indiana college when they visited us back then. But bringing a big game to Dublin, leaving a hundred million euro in the local kitty and making a lot of friends along the way seem to me a pretty good way of proving your Irish credentials.

Let's make a date with ESPN for January 7. We've got a dog in this fight.

Sunday Indo Sport

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