A patron in a sporting sense is someone who is a paying guest. In the art world it is someone who endorses somebody who they think has talent. A patron saint is a guiding or protecting saint who gives special help from heaven to a worthy cause, place or people.
The people who watch the Masters at Augusta are also referred to as patrons. This term has been greeted with derision across the world except for here in Ireland, where the paying public at GAA matches are also referred to as patrons - you couldn't possibly point your finger in a disparaging fashion at them now could you? On the flip side, in any book I have read or film I have watched about Pablo Escobar - everyone calls him patrón … or they die.
So, I am not quite sure how we look at the IRFU Patrons Club. A special class of people - they are paying guests, they endorse the skill of the Irish players. They certainly give special help and guidance to the IRFU. As far as I know, they haven't murdered anyone yet but you would have to think there is a wish list. You have to keep these people onside!
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I remember talking to someone involved in the corporate-hospitality industry on Monday, February 24. It was the day after Ireland were beaten 24-12 at Twickenham. The phone call came pretty much first thing that morning. No caffeine to dull the pain. The Italian game at the Aviva on March 7 would not be played. The message was conveyed with such certainty that the sporting fiver, which I normally offer as a wager, stayed in my pocket.
Sure enough, the match was postponed but the Italians came anyway.
Actors, athletes and entrepreneurs will all tell you that timing is everything. Now the IRFU had, at that stage, managed to bank the gate receipts for the Scotland and Wales games and picked up all the ancillary revenue streams as well.
The Italian game was also a sell-out and the gate receipts are also in the kitty. I don't ever remember getting any tickets from the IRFU until cold, hard currency had exchanged hands ... before the match.
So the Union are cash-rich just at this moment in time - but the big Kahuna was also in play and timing and providence went against the Union here.
To help finance the cost of the construction of the Aviva Stadium, there was a ten-year debenture ticket sale held in the 2009/2010 season. Even in the middle of a deep recession, this was fully subscribed and when the recession softened, in and about 2013, and the championships and victories against serious opposition started rolling in, the Patrons Club really had become the best investment in town.
Time goes by quickly and the Patrons Club debenture tickets were up at the end of 2019 and a new issue was due. Suffice to say, that there was huge initial interest and there was jockeying to get on the list. A blank look and a shrug - maybe sir or madam would like to go on the waiting list, perhaps?
The new ten-year tickets were launched a month or two before October 19, 2019. The day that New Zealand put 46 points on us in the quarter-final of the World Cup in Tokyo.
There were upwards of 20,000 Paddies out in Japan, paying up €10k for the privilege. The timing and the cost really seemed inconsequential. Many of them had to learn 'Swing Low' when they were out there for the knockout stages.
The cost of the new batch of ten-year tickets was €15k per ticket. That is €30k if you want to bring the missus or your favourite child. That means you have to earn €60k gross just to be sure that you have a seat for the next 10 years. It puts the term 'disposable income' into a new bracket. Sales at that stage were brisk!
A ten-per-cent deposit of €1,500 had to be paid by October 19 and that would secure your seat. There were three payment options but all of them required a further payment of €4,800, on or before March 31, 2020.
Given what was happening in this country and globally, I cannot imagine what people were thinking as we huddled in our homes. You could pretty much take it for granted that most people would not go to a match on their own and so it was a big decision for those who left it until March to come up with €9,600 for two tickets and then pay an additional €17,400 or else stagger the payments out over a 48-month period. I cannot imagine the offering being fully subscribed. So whither the patrons?
Article 7 of the terms and conditions state that there is a ten-day "cooling off" period but if "payment is not made before the due dates specified in the payments options it will constitute a breach of contract" and this will cause a termination of contract. "In the event of termination no refund of monies already paid to IRFU in respect of the ticket will be made."
This is not a good situation for either the patrons or the IRFU or for the good of the game in this country. There is no clarity on the resumption of games at any level. The IRFU, in fairness, has made it clear that anybody that buys a ten-year ticket will get ten years' worth of matches and so if matches don't start until January 2021, then that is when the ten-year deal starts.
Another aspect of this issue is the age demographic of the debenture holders - how many patrons would be in the 'at-risk' age bracket? How many would be happy to go to an event that could put their life in danger? You evaluate the investment now with a different set of parameters.
What will a live rugby match with 50,000 to 80,000 capacity become now? What happens now to something we all took for granted?
Quite the conundrum! A solution? Maybe there isn't one required and the ten-year tickets are all sold out - but I doubt it.
Most people, I suspect, would like to retain their tickets but, right now, the cost and the uncertainty is prohibitive. Most of these people ponied up in the first instance for the first batch and have made it possible for the IRFU to amortise the loan on the stadium within their covenants.
I suspect that those waiting lists have disappeared as quickly as someone who upsets Pablo Escobar and so the prudent thing to do would be to stagger the payments out by direct debit over two to three years - say €200 a month - and wait for the economy and people's pockets to recover and give them an option to pay a balloon payment of, say, 40-50 per cent in three or four years' time.
A public-relations exercise in common sense and a prudent way of dealing with a tricky situation for the people who have supported the game financially over the last ten years. Keep the patrons onside.
Breach of contract? No refund of initial deposit? Qué está pasando, Pablo?