Reality dawns that World Cup bid is more than a pipe dream
New Zealander who masterminded 2011 staging gives Ireland ringing endorsement, writes John Greene
Sometimes you just need to hear it from someone else, confirmation that you haven't lost the plot, that your dream can be made real. And here was Martin Snedden, someone who has been involved in one way or another in six different World Cups in two different sports, saying quite categorically, yes you can.
The man behind the successful staging of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand three years ago believes Ireland is ideally placed to do likewise in 2023. "It's not a pipe dream," he says and he means it.
In February, after months of speculation, the governments north and south of the border set up a steering group to look into Ireland's prospects of bidding for, and ultimately hosting, the Rugby World Cup in nine years. With former international Hugo MacNeill in the chair and a strong north-south representation, work on the feasibility study is now well under way amid a growing realisation that the proposal is nowhere near as crazy as it may have first appeared.
Snedden's endorsement, then, is significant. The former international cricketer, who was also involved in the successful bid to bring next year's Cricket World Cup to New Zealand and Australia, was invited to Thomond Park by Keith Wood and Mark O'Connell of W2 Consulting to speak at a major European summit on sports tourism last Thursday and he had done his homework. He wasn't just pandering to his audience in the home of Munster rugby.
"I was pretty aware by the time I arrived where the thinking was getting to," said Snedden of Ireland's plan. "About a month ago, an Irish Cabinet minister, Simon Coveney, was in New Zealand and he and I had breakfast together and that gave me an opportunity to test his government's thinking about it. These days, a major sporting event is not an event run by one organisation, it's a series of partnerships, and government, both central and local, is critical. Simon gave me some pretty positive signals as well as testing some of my thinking about how Ireland might want to shape their story."
On Wednesday, the New Zealander had an important three-hour meeting with MacNeill and the steering group and he came away from that struck by the level of co-operation between the IRFU, the tourism bodies north and south of the border and the politicians.
"I sometimes get the feeling," he noted, "that people are just asking me to reaffirm that Ireland has the capability of doing this. And I'm looking at them saying, 'I know they have'.
"One thing I can help with during this trip is to provide external reassurance that Ireland – if they decide to proceed – will put together a high-class bid and will be a serious contender. There'll be really tough competition, probably most particularly from South Africa I would think. That's a guess, I have no knowledge of that and there'll be other countries. Italy made a strong bid the last time around and presumably they'll stay interested, but I just get the feeling that Ireland will be able to put together something that will make people sit up and take notice."
He sees a lot of similarities between New Zealand and Ireland, similarities which run deeper than the stereotypes about the two nations and reputations for being warm, friendly and sports mad. Yes, these are factors and are cliches of a sort because they are largely true, but there is a greater context.
"The infrastructure is here," he said. "That's the huge advantage Ireland has over New Zealand. We had to do quite a bit of stadia upgrades and even a new stadium and we had some transport infrastructure upgrades that we had to do, so that cost a lot of money. From my understanding of things, virtually all of that's done in Ireland.
"There is a huge advantage in a World Cup being in a country of this size. You can drive around the whole country, so if you have 48 matches sprinkled around the whole of Ireland, north and south, they are all within touching distance of anyone in Ireland and then of course, there is the fantastic proximity to the UK and Europe and easy access for everyone else."
Under Snedden's direction, New Zealand broke the mould when it came to hosting Rugby World Cups. The IRB had a template, a formal template, but Snedden and his team convinced the blazers there was a better, more informal way of doing it. And they were right.
"You do not need a lot of stadia that have big capacities. You only need a few. What you also need is stadia of 12, 14, 16 thousand capacity, 20,000, 22,000 because you have 48 games of rugby and at the very least, 41 of those games are between teams that don't involve Ireland, so they are neutral games. A lot of those games are between teams that are not the powerhouses of world rugby and so what attracts people to buy tickets to watch those matches is not necessarily the teams playing, but it's the desire to be involved in the whole occasion. And that occasion is made much better if you share that opportunity right around the country, if you allow small communities to host a game.
"It might be something like Romania v Georgia, which in New Zealand was played at a small stadium in Palmerston North of 12,000 people. Even though very few people in the crowd would have known the name of a single player on the field, they participated in making the experience and they loved it. And that happened in a lot of different places. And then, of course, you get the big matches and you have the stadia and the experience of running the big matches, so you know you are going to be able to provide the sort of world-class experience needed."
The New Zealand staging became famous for the slogan, 'a stadium of four million people', and Snedden believes Ireland must adopt a similar philosophy. In New Zealand, it is said that over 40 per cent of the population has no interest in rugby and that number is bound to be higher in Ireland, so it is therefore essential that such a major event here is dressed up in different ways to appeal to as many people as possible.
So, in New Zealand, the Rugby World Cup became not just a sporting tournament, but a festival in every town and village. The organisers challenged themselves to come up with innovative ways to engage with as many communities as possible. One of the most interesting – and successful – involved pairing visiting teams with areas known to have a migrant community from that country.
"An example of that was Romania. We thought we knew nothing about the Romanian team. No one in New Zealand knows anything about the Romanian team, how can we make sure they feel welcome? So we looked around New Zealand to see where we might find a cluster of Romanian migrants and we found them in a really small town just south of Christchurch and so we went to them and said, 'Would you like to look after the Romanian team for a week'? And that community, called Ashburton, said, 'Yes we'd love to'. And that was their moment in the sun, they were able to shine and the Romanian team loved it."
That is the first major challenge, the second is to find ways to keep visitors in the country for as long as possible. Figures are often bandied about when it comes to visitors to countries for major sporting events and how much they spend, which are difficult to believe. Ultimately, New Zealand spent in the region of almost €210m hosting the World Cup and they were determined to get some kind of a handle on what the returns were, so the government introduced a mandatory question when issuing visas to visitors to establish how many had travelled to the country for the tournament. The final figure of 133,000 was over twice what had been expected.
"What no one can ever know exactly is how much money is spent by the visitors, but our best estimates are that it was somewhere in the region of €500m – maybe a little less, maybe a little more, difficult to tell – but a pretty good return on the investment made by New Zealand.
"Ireland will attract far more than double the number of visitors than we did. I think you could confidentially expect upwards of 300,000 visitors for a Rugby World Cup. Because of your geographical proximity, a lot of those visitors will come in for shorter periods of time. Actually, a number may come three or four times. We had a large number of Australian visitors who flew over to New Zealand three or four times during the tournament and that will happen here. The average length of stay for our Rugby World Cup visitors was about 17 or 18 days, yours would probably be a little bit shorter, though not necessarily if you give them a reason to stay. This is what you have to do.
"You have the tourism attributes that are attractive to people, so you've just got to persuade them this is what they want to do to fill in the time between the rugby. The beauty is that because your road system is now so good, it's not difficult for people. They are not having to hop on and hop off planes, all they need is to have a car, or get on a bus or a train. A lot of what you do is that you persuade people that this is the moment in time where you come to Ireland and you spend two or three weeks and you go and do all the things that have been on your bucket list and you go and watch three or four or five games of rugby. We were able to integrate rugby and tourism really strongly and successfully and we benefited from that."
Snedden has been involved in sports tourism for almost a decade and believes strongly in the returns generated from successfully hosting a major event. It's not just about the money spent during the event by visitors, and by the local population, it's about much more.
It is said that sports tourists spend almost twice as much as regular tourists and that is a factor, but there is also a long-lasting impact on a country's reputation as a place to visit.
This is an important point because hosting the Rugby World Cup would expose Ireland to a significant outlay, including a fee to the IRB of over €100m. This, says Snedden, still represents a good investment.
"The money side of the bid is significant. The hosting fee we paid to the IRB, which is the guarantee that they get, was £50m, I think England are paying £75m, Japan £90m and I think Ireland will be over £100m. That's guaranteed and has to be paid at the end of the tournament."
The only revenue that is allowed to be generated by the host union is match ticket sales. Sponsorship is retained by the IRB, the broadcasting rights and the merchandising rights are too. So every commercial opportunity other than revenue from match ticket sales is kept by the IRB, on top of the fee. It is, he agrees, "a pretty tough model".
Between the fee for the IRB and the cost of staging the games and hosting the visiting teams, New Zealand spent a whopping NZ$330m (€208m). "The money is nowhere as big a problem for you as it was for us. You actually could run this tournament at a profit, whereas we couldn't. Aside from the geography, we had to spend so much money on infrastructure which you do not have to do."
New Zealand budgeted for a loss of NZ$30m (€19m), to be shared between the government (two-thirds) and the NZRU (one-third), and to achieve that, they needed to make NZ$270m (€170m) from ticket sales, which was almost 12 times greater than the previous biggest earner from a sporting event in the country, the 2005 Lions Tour.
"We continually had the media saying, 'You're never going to get there, you're never going to get there'. And we said, 'Yes we are, but it's going to take us the whole time to get there'. The newspapers were running barometers on their front pages and we were feeling the pressure, but we had a lot of confidence that we knew how it would pan out. We started the tournament still needing to sell another $20m, but we knew once the tournament started, people would see it and keep buying tickets. We just got there, much to everyone's relief.
"In the end, my view was that it was a pretty good investment for New Zealand and I think it's a great investment for Ireland. You shouldn't get scared or fazed by it, yes there's a lot of money needed, but most of that money is paid once you've received your ticket revenue, so you're not forking it out up front. The event will be a success. If I'm reading the tea leaves right, there's a lot of confidence that you're on the right track."
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