The Recovery Position

Despite difficult times, experts believe the upward trend is a permanent one for the Irish sports industry.

Maeve Buckley, a director and co-owner of sports marketing agency Line Up Sports, believes the financial crisis has forced agencies to be smarter.

“The turbulence made the agencies leaner, more competitive and savvy although the expectation in the market now is that fees will start to increase after many years of being quite depressed,” Buckley told SportBusiness International.

“Properties also have worked in a very lean environment where any sponsorships were a bonus, rather than making up part of their budget. The turbulence took a lot of the fat out of the industry and it will be interesting to see if it gradually creeps back in.”

However, Buckley is confident that the sector is now on an upward trajectory.

“After some difficult years, 2015 was very buoyant,” she said.

“This was due to the Rugby World Cup, with rugby performing strongly, as well as the ‘old faithfuls’ – GAA and soccer.

“The market has changed in that there has been consolidation amongst the brands, and an awareness amongst both rights-holders and brands that the classic sponsorship models have become stale and for campaigns to stand out they need to be different.

“In 2016 it will be all about Rio and the Olympic sports, and about those individuals and teams from sports who don’t normally get enough airspace.

“Next year onwards will also be massive for women’s sports and those sponsors who are savvy enough to ‘normalise’ women’s sport and give it the same emphasis as men’s will do really well in terms of public perception.

“Mass participation will continue to grow also – cycling, triathlon, adventure racing – as anyone can take part, while they also take place in the best of the Irish landscape.”


Playing The Masses

Sports tourism and event development specialist Gerry Dawson agrees that mass participation events provide a huge opportunity for Ireland not only to engage its population in activities, but also to showcase the island’s stunning scenery.

“There has been growth in sports like cycling, running, triathlon and adventure sports,” he told SportBusiness International.

“Ireland is repositioning itself, and the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ campaign, which runs on the west coast from Cork all the way up to Donegal, provides destinations for all kinds of sports.

“Ireland’s west coast can be the adventure sports playground for western Europe. Outdoor sports and water sports are big things for Ireland and I am very optimistic for the future, but we have to have events that put bums on seats.

“I’m a firm believer that you need a minimum of three years to make an event work. That is why it is good that Northern Ireland has put in place a legacy event after hosting the Giro d’Italia last year – the Grand Fondo.

“The Giro was one of the few events to really get all sides of the community working together, so there were benefits in terms of social and political healing aside from the economic impact.”

The inaugural Grand Fondo mass participation cycling event for amateurs and professionals took place in June 2015, one year after the Giro d’Italia Big Start 2014 filled the streets of Northern Ireland with 227,000 spectators before the race moved from Belfast to Dublin via the Antrim coast and County Armagh. The legacy event, operated by Giro organiser RCS Sport, will take place on an annual basis until at least 2017.

Darach McQuaid, a partner at sports marketing company Shadetree Sports, spearheaded the concept of the Giro’s ‘Big Start’ in Northern Ireland from as long ago as 2009 before lodging and then winning the bid to host the event. The possibility of a legacy event had been discussed since 2012, midway through the bid process for the 2014 Big Start.

“After a meeting with RCS Sport, I began discussions with the governments in Dublin and Belfast, which ultimately led to an official bid being lodged with RCS Sport to start the 2014 Giro d’Italia in Belfast and Dublin,” McQuaid told SportBusiness International.

“The buy-in from both governments, their tourism agencies and many other key stakeholders ensured that by the time the race itself arrived, the public in the north and south was at fever pitch.

“The inaugural Grand Fondo was a big success with over 3,200 riders. Our ambitions for the event in 2016 are big, and we are looking at 6,000-plus participants.”

Broad support from politicians is always essential for a country with event-hosting ambitions, and although Ireland’s political landscape is complicated, stellar events have been secured and are in the pipeline.

Dublin’s Aviva Stadium will host four matches during the Uefa Euro 2020 football tournament, while Ireland will stage the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup and is bidding for the men’s edition of the event in 2023.

“Ireland has proven itself as a world-class host of events as diverse as the Tour de France, Special Olympics, Ryder Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and most recently the Giro d’Italia. That’s an impressive roll call,” McQuaid added.

“The governments have proven themselves very adept at working with various events, with very different needs, and making things work logistically on the ground.

“We are working hard to relaunch a professional five-day Tour of Ireland cycle stage race and hope to make an announcement in the coming months.

“We are also putting together a bid to host the Vuelta a España in Ireland. Ireland has hosted the Tour and the Giro, and the Vuelta is the only remaining Grand Tour yet to visit.

“I believe the sports tourism industry will increasingly play a central role in the global sport and tourism industries as a crucial element in driving benefits to local stakeholders.

“For sure, as with the current Rugby World Cup bid, bidding on an all-island basis strengthens this bid and event. The more this can happen, the more success will accrue.

“We currently have pretty clear avenues to government in the north and south in terms of sports and tourism ministers and my experience with them is very positive. They have made things happen.

“There is a clear difference in policing policy between North and South which, if harmonised, would help event-hosting potential.”


MATCH DAY: Who is looking forward to Ireland v Wales?

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Shifting the Goalposts

The 2014 Giro was the big winner at Tourism Northern Ireland’s annual awards. However, there is a feeling among many in the Irish sports industry that greater emphasis needs to be placed on the value of sports tourism for the island as a whole.

“There needs to be a coherent sports tourism strategy,” Dawson said.

“Currently there is Fáilte Ireland for the Republic and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. It would be good to have one organisation to work alongside rights-holders.

“We are beginning to get things right, but we need to have the equivalent of an EventScotland or a Sport Event Denmark. Tourism is a huge driver of economic growth and sports-related tourism is a significant part of that.

“Even in 2008, during the economic crisis, sports tourism in Ireland accounted for between 8-8.5 per cent of tourism expenditure. That percentage is continuing to grow in Ireland.”

Buckley added: “We will be hosting a number of high-profile events over the next number of years, like the Women’s Rugby World Cup, as well as a large number of participation events, and these should all combine to position Ireland at the forefront of the sports tourism and sports marketing industries.

“Sport in general needs to get the investment it deserves, but then it needs to repay that investment, and be smart about working with small budgets.

“The sector needs to learn to work together to its best advantage, rather than in competition with each other. The rising tide will lift all boats.

“Sports tourism also needs to be given the attention that it needs as a sector, from a budget and policy perspective, and it is likely that the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid will help give it that attention.

McQuaid suggested that any changes to Ireland’s event-bidding process should “happen organically.”

“Trying to funnel all decision making in Ireland, north and south, into one sport bidding organisation, would not be beneficial in my opinion,” he added.

“From our experience with the Giro, we came up with the concept, sold it to RCS, and when we were sure there was an interest, we began to outline to both governments the benefits of hosting the event. For sure there were some on-the-ground elements, particularly in the Republic, that could have worked smoother, but from a bidding point of view, we were in control, and ultimately as we were the ones that would be responsible for organising the event, this is how it should be.

Like the 2014 Giro experience, Garrett Tubridy, the tournament director of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland, is confident that the event can leave a positive legacy.

“There will be some uplift, in terms of economic activity, but the real benefit of the Women’s Rugby World Cup will be in terms of the legacy for women’s sport – not just women’s rugby,” he told SportBusiness International. “The Northern Ireland Executive and the Republic of Ireland Government have been very vocal about their desire to host more events, including sporting events, and the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup is an opportunity to showcase how Ireland can host a sporting event of global stature.

As Ireland looks to the future, global ambitions are unquestionable, especially given that the Irish diaspora is well established worldwide.

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