herald

Wednesday 22 November 2017

NO: Interfering in the business of a hugely successful sporting body in pursuit of political gain is plain wrong

The IRFU has been scathing in its response to Minister Eamon Ryan's 'cracked' plan to make rugby games free-to-air on TV. But is he right?

WHEN the Soprano family and their associates called in loans from customers who couldn't pay, they'd slowly claim ownership of their clients' business assets. When your loan was in arrears, instead of killing you, they moved in as your partner.

Over months they'd expose the business to pointless expenses, bloat the creditor list and bleed it dry until only a shell remained. What's going on here isn't that different.

The Government built the IRFU a stadium and now claims it owns the business. The loan is being called in to win votes and curry favour with the national broadcaster. By the time everyone realises the business is screwed it'll be too late to do anything.

The argument about the money invested in the Aviva stadium giving the taxpayer ownership of rugby would be funny if it weren't so deranged and dangerous.

When a country invests in long-term assets it does so to get a return, either in cash or social capital. A modern stadium gives us both -- big events make people spend and also foster a sense of civic pride and community.



STADIUM

Over generations Croke Park, Thomond and the new stadium at Lansdowne Road pay back the Government's investment many times. The organisations who run the sports that take place in the stadiums are independent of the Government -- at least in civilised democracies.

Unfortunately for Ireland there's a long history of politicians running sports budgets for their own political ends. Ministers for Finance and Sport made sure their constituencies' pet projects were funded. Politics dirtied sport.

When Michael McDowell derided Bertie Ahern's plans for an oversized stadium in Abbotstown he described folly on a grand scale, but it was only one episode in a drama of mistakes.

Bertie's Government had no interest in grassroots sport -- he wanted to be seen at Manchester United, Dublin and Ireland games. A big-time Charlie but a man of the people.

The Greens promised a new form of Government.

Eamon Ryan's plans bear all the hallmarks of the populist garbage that drove the Ahern policy. The quaint notion that Ryan is doing this for his children, or to expose people to the games is so saccharine as to be vomitous. There's already rugby on terrestrial TV -- the All Ireland League. It's just not good enough to attract mass audiences.

The evidence that terrestrial television helps the game is also questionable. The first round of the Ulster Football Championship last weekend had only 10,000 paying customers. It could have sold out were it not on terrestrial TV. The two Magners League semi-finals are interesting.

The match in Dublin between Leinster and Munster was a 19,500 sell-out, broadcast on Setanta. The other had a crowd of 7,000 and was broadcast on terrestrial television in Wales. Echo-filled stadiums are a real turn-on to the casual fan; what kid hasn't dreamed of running in tries before empty terraces?



IRONY

The irony is that in one term of players' contracts the money drained from the game in Ireland will mean we'll end up with teams not much better than AIL standard representing us in the Heineken Cup, routinely getting beaten by English, French and Welsh teams studded with Irish players seeking their market-value salaries. Interfering in the business of an incredibly successful sporting organisation for political gain is wrong.

Oh, and free-to-air? Don't we pay for our TV licences?

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