Gridiron takes a punt on the Irishman


It’s an unusually warm and sunny November afternoon on the perfect Notre Dame campus at Disneyland. And more than 24 hours before the Fighting Irish play their last college football game, supporters are already arriving in South Bend.

some check in at the hotel on campus. Others take advantage of the free golf buggy rides to get around. Others buy branded goods from the official store, where a book on the 1916 Rising is among the items available for purchase.

A few hours earlier, Notre Dame had announced that she would come to Dublin in 2023 to face her rivals Navy. It was a crush on the organizers of the Aer Lingus College Classic series, which will bring five games to the Aviva Stadium in the years to come.

Of all the teams that playoffs organizers might attract, Notre Dame is at the top of the food chain. As well as being one of America’s most famous soccer teams, it is a business giant. While other universities often come together to sell their television rights as a package, Notre Dame is big enough to negotiate their own deal, with the latest estimated at $ 15 million per season. Their stadium generally has a capacity of 80,000 seats. On a game weekend, parking alone would generate around $ 250,000. From both a sporting and financial standpoint, playing South Bend is a huge plus.

Still, the school was urged to move their ‘home’ game to Dublin for a repeat of the 2012 game. Organizers are coy about the exact size of the check, but it was enough to make them whole. And there was also the personal connection.

Neil Naughton, co-chair of the series steering committee and chairman of appliance giant Glen Dimplex, also sits on the board of directors of Notre Dame Business School. His involvement, along with the university’s organic ties to Ireland, make moving the game here an easy sell on both sides of the Atlantic.

About 40,000 Notre Dame alumni and fans are expected to jump across the pond for the game, which is expected to be Americans’ biggest lift for a sporting event and a sizable boost. for the Irish hospitality industry valued at around EUR 147 million.

College football is played by amateurs, student athletes who don’t get paid. But it’s also a big deal and the mechanics behind the Dublin series are considerable. The pockets must have been deep. And they must have gone even deeper since Covid stepped in and delayed the start of the series by two years.

“From a business and financial standpoint, it almost certainly nearly killed him,” says Brendan Meehan, commercial director of Irish American Events (IAE).

IAE, set up by Padraic O’Kane and John Anthony, are the match organizers. They assume about 50% of the risk associated with the business. The remaining share is split between a public-private partnership which includes contributions from Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, Dublin City Council and assistance from the Major Events Division of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, the Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media. The private branch of business penetrates deeply into Irish business. Aer Lingus is on board as title sponsors, as are Glen Dimplex, Grant Thornton, Abbey Group, Eversheds Sutherland and others.

Between the different parties, they managed to keep the series alive after the Covid intervention and soaring costs. Uprooting a school and moving it to Dublin comes at a significant cost, around $ 6 million, and that is before any marketing and promotional expense. There is also the logistical challenge. A single American football team could travel with more than 100 players. They will travel with up to ten tons of equipment and up to 50 employees who will all need to be fed and watered for the week. To get these devices on the line, someone has to bet the house.

“Our model is different now than it was before Covid,” explains Meehan. “And that has more to do with finances, so we’ve officially declared that pre-Covid is an average game – now we’re not talking about Notre Dame because they’re the exception rather than the rule – but an average game. costs $ 5 million to bring to Ireland. That’s the payment to the university. But after Covid, it’s now $ 6 million and there are a number of different factors behind it.

“First of all, the universities’ income has been decimated because of Covid, they play these games in 50,000, 80,000, 100,000 capacity stadiums with no one of their own last year. And second, the competition has become much greater. And the competition comes from three different sources. It comes from the school’s own environment, which wants the game to be played in the local town because of the money it brings in through restaurants, hotels and everything in between.

“There’s also competition from cities in the United States that don’t have college football and are very keen and eager to bring a game to their city. And the third competition is international. London, Frankfurt, Dubai, Sydney all want college football games in their cities. So like we said these games are up for grabs for Ireland, but we could lose them. So we need to ensure that they are successful for everyone involved, for universities that travel, for both public and private stakeholders and for game organizers.

Finding the right university to come here is a mixture of art and science. The school must be both willing to relocate and have a large enough base willing to travel here. Outside of the Notre Dame game, it is hoped that around 20,000 people will travel for each game. Meehan estimates that the series as a whole will bring in around € 413million for the Irish economy.

There is also considerable schedule gymnastics, involving considerations such as weeks off and games on the road. Dublin matches are to be played on ‘week zero’, essentially seven days before the traditional start of the college season on Labor Day weekend, a concession made to help with travel logistics and, in fact, make the most viable series.

Next year, Northwestern University of Illinois will move their home game to Dublin where they face Nebraska. One of Northwestern’s main benefactors is billionaire and Irish-American Pat Ryan, co-owner of the Chicago Bears who founded the Aon company and named his company after the Irish for “one.”

His excitement about having the game here combined with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s willingness (who can trace his lineage back to Nurney) to shift their schedule makes him the perfect fit. Nebraska’s ties to Ireland are less obvious, but they have one of the most loyal fan bases in global sport. They have sold all games in their 85,000-seat Memorial Stadium since 1962. Travel packages from the United States, which include tours to various parts of the island, are already on offer, ranging from ‘about $ 2 to $ 5,000.

And while the NFL has moved to London, the vast majority of people who come to this game are from and around the English capital. It’s a different offering in that it brings people into the country. Visitors are expected to stay for a good part of the week. Their presence and expense is what makes the series valuable.

“We are a tourism proposition, we are not necessarily a sport proposition”, explains Meehan. “And the idea here is to get Americans to travel to Ireland. Our projections estimate that 20,000 people will arrive for any game that does not involve Notre Dame. We have reduced that by 10% for 2022 on the backs of Covid. , so we expect 18,000 to travel for 22. ”

The business model doesn’t just work on ticket sales. Corporate buy-in in terms of tickets, hospitality and government support is crucial. But selling the stadium next year will help put the rest of the series on solid footing. As much as they organize a football match, they also put on a show. The optics must be correct.

“Definitely for ’22 our biggest risk is (if) the stadium doesn’t sell. And there are two main factors to that. When we look at the teams we are aiming for 24, this game is played on week zero of the college football seasons, so no one has watched football since early January.

“Last year for the Illinois-Nebraska game, there were 3.2 million viewers in the United States for the game. It was the game that was due to arrive in Ireland in ’21. So you are looking at almost 3.5 million American eyeballs on this game and they will include athletic directors and coaches from the universities that we are targeting. And if they see a nice stadium with maybe 30,000 or 35,000 people, they won’t be so eager to come in 2024, 25 and 26. So from our point of view the stadium has to be full. We need them to look at this and say ‘Wow, I have to be a part of this, I want to go to Ireland’.

Organizers say they will bring a full college football experience, from tailgating and cheerleading, rallies and parades. When Notre Dame was due to come last year, there were some 36 events organized around the main game, ranging from a high school football game to business, academic, networking events and even a mass at Dublin Castle, not to mention the chance for Ireland to showcase itself.

“For 2021, ESPN brought its Match day show, which was going to be broadcast live from College Green and they had searched for three hours of content on Ireland. Usually this happens on a day when there are other games, but there is no other game because it is week zero. They were in London for Wimbledon and were due to come and meet us to tour the country and capture the content on Ireland that was going to be broadcast live to the United States. It’s an incredible exhibition. It is impossible to quantify the indirect benefit to Ireland from these games.

“Ultimately we want to create something where the first game of the college football season is always played in Ireland on week zero and our current five-game streak lasts well beyond that.”


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