John Greene: Sponsors don't grow on trees, Minister
The insults have been flying at the country's sports organisations for the last few weeks and there's no sign of a let-up any time soon. Those leading the charge to ban sponsorship in sport from drinks companies have really found their voice.
Given the work done on the ground by thousands of volunteers in working with young people in trying to promote participation in some kind of physical activity – work which is effectively done to compensate for the appalling lack of interest and effort by the State in the physical well-being of the people of this country – the rampant condescension is sickening.
James Reilly, the Minister for Health, struck a blow last week for those classes which have always thought of sport as some kind of strange and unappealing subculture to be endured reluctantly rather than appreciated. The minister has taken it upon himself to be the hero in this noble quest by pronouncing that he is going to "reduce sport's addiction to the income alcohol brings to them".
Think about that for a second. Think about what this country's Minister for Health is actually saying.
The heads of Irish sport have all spoken out on this matter. It is generally accepted that Irish sport receives somewhere between €25m and €30m from alcohol sponsorship. This is not just the money that the IRFU receives from Heineken, or the FAI from Carlsberg, but it is also the small sports clubs in towns and villages all over the country getting small amounts of money from a local publican, all of which adds up. And a significant portion of this money goes directly into funding sport away from the elite level. In fact, it is specifically targeted at encouraging young people to take up one sport or another.
And now we have a minister who is hell-bent on ridding sport of its 'addiction' to this money. The irony shouldn't be lost on anybody here either that this comes at a time when this government continually takes money out of sport, not just through direct funding, but in the further diluting of physical education from our schools.
"We believe nature abhors a vacuum," said the minister. "As alcohol moves out of sport, other promoters will move in." This is another of those kites being flown on this subject. Try telling that to the organisers of this week's Irish Open at Carton House – a highly regarded and high-profile event with worldwide appeal, especially given the status of our top golfers at the moment – which does not have a title sponsor again this year. Try telling that also to the Irish women's rugby team, who cannot get a sponsor despite winning the Grand Slam this year and being in receipt of a lot of public and media attention.
Reilly, in fact, has plenty more to say. He says the sky won't fall in when the ban is introduced. He says sport is different from arts events and festivals because of its youth involvement and that's why it needs to be dealt with.
Here's what you won't hear the minister say however.
'I oversee a health service which is directly responsible for wasting millions upon millions of euro every year. I intend to take that money from the health service and give it to the country's sports organisations to help them continue the invaluable work they are doing in promoting a healthy way of life for our youth. The health service will have to cut out the waste we all know is there, and it will have to become more efficient and more accountable.'
Which is why I have come to admire Leo Varadkar and his ministerial colleague Michael Ring in recent weeks, both of whom have been prepared to come out against Reilly and others on this ban.
Speaking this weekend, Ring has again voiced his opposition, saying it may become a matter for the EU.
"With the best will in the world, sports bodies like the IRFU and FAI do not decide who sponsors European or international tournaments like the Heineken Cup, the UEFA Cup, or the World Cup," he said. "It's not fair to impose a sponsorship ban on these organisations when they do not have the authority to pursue alternative sponsors."
Previously, Varadkar said: "First of all, I want to know where the money will come from to compensate sporting organisations that are going to lose out. Secondly, I want to know why arts and cultural events are being treated differently, particularly when so many young people attend concerts and attend cultural events, and thirdly I think we need to be sure that we can still take full part in international sporting events."
The idea that the government can introduce this ban in the manner proposed is ludicrous. And yet there are very real fears that it is going to be introduced without any alternative funding streams.
And if that happens, Minister Reilly may realise, too late, that the sky did fall in after all.
Football has to move on
There is very little difference, really, between this year's football championship and last year's, or the year before, or five years ago, or 10 years ago.
At least there is no difference in how it runs. It's broken, and has been for years, and the GAA has been getting away with it.
But now the GAA needs to be mindful of the fact that people place a value on how they spend their money like never before. And it's not just ticket prices that they look at. It's fuel costs, and food costs too. And no matter how much they love the championship, there will be a tipping point, and it's getting very close to that now.