Thursday 19 April 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Why Ireland's Rugby World Cup bid failure should be celebrated

Bid ambassador Brian ODriscoll, Brett Gosper, CEO, World Rugby, bid Kid Alex Place, Alan Gilpin, Head of Rugby World Cup, Ireland 2023 Oversight Board member Dick Spring, Sports Minister Shane Ross T.D., and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Bid ambassador Brian ODriscoll, Brett Gosper, CEO, World Rugby, bid Kid Alex Place, Alan Gilpin, Head of Rugby World Cup, Ireland 2023 Oversight Board member Dick Spring, Sports Minister Shane Ross T.D., and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Ewan MacKenna

Consensus is a terrible thing. When reached, thinking stops, and it's that which made Ireland's bid for the Rugby World Cup so troubling. How many times did you hear a dissenting voice? How many times did you see the numbers crunched? How many times did you get this for what it really was?

For people usually so good at those ever-more-important traits of skepticism and cynicism, to swallow the bullshit whole had led us to the verge of throwing away an awful lot of money badly needed elsewhere. But there was a safety fuse. Our arrogance. Having shrugged the shoulders at poor infrastructure and Soviet-style arenas, presuming a wink and a jig would win over the judges, on Tuesday morning the bid was told the truth. Last in four of the five categories. And essentially done for.

That Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, said our effort was "bulletproof" just last month gives you an insight into the spin and sleight of hand around all of this. But if that was clearly nonsense, it was just the tip of a big and brutal iceberg we've now thankfully avoided. Hundreds of millions saved from a giant Ponzi scheme that was using sport as a mask for a transfer of wealth from public pockets into the best-placed private hands. Whether intentional or not, that's first and foremost what sporting mega-events do and it means this failure was one to celebrate. We finally did it.

A couple of weeks ago, a parliamentary question was sent via Catherine Murphy's office to the minister regarding the impact of Brexit, just to get a taste of the understanding around what a World Cup might entail. The reply was revealing.

"The Government's contingency work on Brexit is examining all scenarios and, in that regard, it should be noted that tournaments have taken place across more than one country in the past, and will do so again in the future, e.g. Switzerland and Austria co-hosted Euro 2008, and similarly Euro 2012 was co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Accordingly, I am confident that Brexit will not affect the operation of the tournament."

That was it. But ever since this bid materialised there's never been any proper detail available to scrutinise. Indeed back in July, a late night Dáil session was required to hurry through legislation after the attorney general had said emergency laws were required to support the effort, that it had to pass through the Oireachtas by summer recess, and that the Oireachtas committee would need to be bypassed. With that avoidance of checks and balances, €137m in a tournament fee to a company proudly based in Dublin but registered in the Isle of Man and €200m in operational costs were made available for a private venture with no guarantee of a return.

And for what? A brief party for the few? This was the Celtic Tiger rising from the ashes.

Since then the search for minutiae has continued and we've come up empty. When asked about that €200m infrastructure promise should we have won out, a breakdown from the department was unavailable due to "commercial confidentiality" around public money. When asked for any other details surrounding a potentially huge investment, a map of host cities was supplied that included an airport in Galway that hasn't been used commercially since 2011 as the runway is far too short. When going on the official bid website, even it felt like a house built on sand.

"A world famous welcome," it said.

"The world's best fans," it said.

"A gateway to the world," it said.

"A tournament like no other," it said

Rather than any comprehensive explanation, on top of that there were references to a Heineken Cup semi-final, college football and a hurling qualifier, as if comparable and somehow tangible.

As much as there's a complication of matters by those best placed as if to purposely muddy the waters while talking down to those picking up the tab, the advantages and disadvantages of this venture can be figured out simply. Just break it into three. What we have at present. What we'd need to make this viable. And what we'd get back during and after it all took place. This is where it gets ugly as you realise from Ross to Brian O'Driscoll, they've dressed the pig in full-on drag.

Firstly, let's look at the present-day. In terms of stadia, the work required would be massive. Casement Park may never even be built and was submitted as one of the venues when it doesn't even have planning permission and, when you consider a new Páirc Uí Chaoimh was deemed to not be up to standard, you get a picture of where we are at.

Elsewhere, Fitzgerald Stadium has no floodlights and MacHale Park has stone slabs for seats yet, as an example of what's needed at this level, in 2011 the Otago Stadium reduced its capacity from 30,000 to 26,000 just for journalists. That's before we get anywhere near the corporate requirements that most of our venues simply don't have and would have to build. Is this where the needs of a nation really lie right now?

Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo in attendance after Mayo Football Press Conference at Elvery's MacHale Park, Castlebar in Mayo. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Kevin McLoughlin of Mayo in attendance after Mayo Football Press Conference at Elvery's MacHale Park, Castlebar in Mayo. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

As for infrastructure, it's laughable. Have you ever tried to get from Galway to Killarney if you don't drive? Try Derry to Cork with a hard border. Go back to that 2011 World Cup that many used as an example of what we could achieve to see the bigger picture. New Zealand spent heavy on stadia renovations, platform lengthening in train stations, new footpaths and bus shelters, an airport runway extension and highway realignments. And still, on opening night Auckland was a disaster.

Thus in terms of what we'd need, that New Zealand comparison ought to be continued. When they first bid for the tournament in 2005, their department of finance made a provision in their budget for a potential cost to taxpayers of €45m. A year-and-a half out, that number had risen to around €325m and kept on growing. Little wonder they lost €33m, and that while ignoring €17m in festivals and business programmes as who's counting anyway? Despite this Ross preached confidently that this tournament always makes a profit.

Look at our history of overspending once the public purse is out and you get the gist. In fact that €200m our government quoted didn't even include the cost of vital services like policing and insurance. To put it further into perspective, for the last Rugby World Cup, England seemed to already have everything in place and still spent €100m on infrastructure improvements. Therefore this was a black hole that we've somehow got out of just before the event horizon.

Speaking on Newstalk during the week and replying to some of the issues I'd previously mentioned on air, the chairman of the bidding committee Dick Spring said that he "didn't know where to start" while again lacking any release of numbers. To be fair it had been a tough day but he went on to talk about how Deloitte had gone through the bid and said that it could be worth €800m to our economy. Tellingly though there's a history of manipulation of facts and figures to suit those trying to hoist such events onto a nation, and it's down to who is behind the reports that claim great gains from major sporting tournaments and how they get their numbers.

For that tournament six years ago, Deloitte said New Zealand could generate between €200m and €810m in direct economic impact while a report from Coventry University's Centre for the International Business of Sport hinted that it "may deliver" up to €509m in tourist spending. But the former was commissioned by the IRB while the latter was for Mastercard, the official sponsor.

Worse, Deloitte's report when talking about profits didn't even include the €95m it cost the people in a hosting fee. Four years prior to that they were at it as well when saying "TV audiences for the event have grown steadily, and Rugby World Cup 2007 was watched by a cumulative TV audience of over four billion in 238 countries". This at a time when there were less than 200 countries on the planet and yet they are the same people making the sell to the Irish taxpayer. But what was their optimism for our effort based on given we've hardly any details and why keep it all so hidden if this is really is going to be so great for everyone?

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Ireland 2023 Bid Chairman Dick Spring take part in a press conference after Ireland presented their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup in London. AFP PHOTO / Glyn KIRK
Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and Ireland 2023 Bid Chairman Dick Spring take part in a press conference after Ireland presented their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup in London. AFP PHOTO / Glyn KIRK

It begs the rhetorical question of why highly-rated companies employed by stakeholders skew the parameters and why those stakeholders want to skew them. The truth is that economic impact reports purposely measure total income, not net income, and as an example and as was pointed out after the 2015 World Cup, some €68m in ticket revenue excluded all costs like administration. In fact after that tournament, Ernst & Young even admitted in their own report that there is a large over-estimation of the income from big sporting events as well as an underestimation of costs. It brings to mind the saying, free your mind, but only after you free the markets.

As for the aftermath of hosting a tournament we bizarrely presumed was coming our way, you've to impress people to get them back. Sure enough potential figures don't ever take into account those that would stay but leave due to such an event or those that would visit but don't bother due to such an event, but what of those that do come? Remember ads during the Ryder Cup?

€20,000 for 10 nights in a six-bed house in an exclusive estate minutes from Navan city centre.

€20,500 for nine nights in this luxurious three-bed apartment in Saggart

Meanwhile when New Zealand hosted, while seeing an increase in total international guest nights of 21 per cent that September and 7.1 per cent that October of the competition from the previous year, our industry is fully booked. Hoteliers in Dublin put room capacity at well over 90 per cent normally and this is a city with three venues proposed that can hold 143,000.

But none of that is even the worst part about this for while everyone would pay through their taxes, think about where the return mostly goes. To those already doing well through their private businesses be that hotels or restaurants or bars. It increases the divide in a country where we've record numbers on hospital trolleys and freezing on the streets and, while we cannot afford them, seemingly we could shake the money tree for this. There are those that will say it's not an either-or but our response is why not? This World Cup was a morally bankrupt idea to begin with and still there are those telling us we should put a sauna in the shed before filling the fridge.

By Tuesday night, Alan Quinlan was rolled out onto TV3 and used that great Irish argument of "begrudgery" in response to much of this, but hearing his reference drew a large smile. When that's the attempted counterargument, there tends to be no counterargument. And still, the bid committee have said it's not over yet with a couple of weeks left until the decision, however the problem is that it's not their losses they are racking up now but yours. Sometimes you should quit while ahead. Here they should quit while thankfully way behind.

Read Ewan MacKenna every Thursday on Independent.ie

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