Notre Dame to get the ball rolling on gridiron college series in Dublin
College football series in Ireland is about a lot more than just big business
Navy and Notre Dame face off in a 2012 match in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES
It’s 10am on game Saturday in a lecture hall in the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. A select group of local fans of its iconic college football team, breezily known as the Fighting Irish due to historical links, are enraptured by Neil Naughton’s accent. To this friendly audience, his brogue is the real deal.
The Glen Dimplex executive chairman is in the US to promote the Aer Lingus College Football Classic 2020, which takes place at the Aviva stadium next August with a showdown between Notre Dame and Navy. Almost a year ahead of the event, Naughton, who chairs the steering committee, is being interviewed at a pre-game gathering ahead of Notre Dame’s clash that day with New Mexico State.
“The 2020 game is not about bringing the drama and pageantry of gridiron to an Irish audience,” the genial Naughton explains. “It’s about our two great nations engaging together. As well as the game, there will be academic conferences, cultural events, business opportunities... and you can bet there will be social activities, too.”
The crowd roars its approval. They get it – that’s code for pub time. What could be better than drinking Guinness in Dublin? With the audience now firmly onside, Naughton, whose family (his father is Martin Naughton, founder of Glen Dimplex) are prominent philanthropists, lays out his rationale for becoming involved in the 2020 event, the first in a planned annual series of five.
“We’re hoping Notre Dame fans will get to experience Ireland, to love it. And in the future, they will see Ireland as their second home. And if they’re in business and they want to open a European office, Dublin will be their natural choice, or Cork or Galway or Belfast. ”
A few hours after Naughton’s speech, 80,000 Notre Dame fans crammed into its impressive stadium to watch their team of students in the season opener. College football is an all-American extravaganza. Naughton, whose family foundation has close links to the university, gets the fervour, which must be seen to be believed.
On a roll now, he ends his good-humoured sales pitch with a clenched fist aloft and the Notre Dame team’s battle cry: “Go Irish!” The crowd loves it. If you end every speech at the university that way, he jokes later, you can never go too far wrong.
The Aer Lingus College Football series should be big business. The organisers officially estimate that the games in Dublin will generate more than €50 million annually for the economy. Upwards of 35,000 fans from the US – the bulk of them Fighting Irish – are expected to descend on the city.
That makes it a boon for our tourism industry, which is why State agencies Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, as well as Dublin City Council, are all on board as official supporters. The airline, which wants to build its brand with the 35 million people who identify as Irish-American, is the title sponsor. Its former chief executive and current non-executive director, Stephen Kavanagh, is deputy chair of the steering committee.
Accounting firm Grant Thornton is also a major backer, with an eye on wining and dining potential US clients in Dublin while the games are on. Its managing partner in Dublin, Michael McAteer, also sits on the steering group.
College football matches have been occasionally played in Dublin since the late 1980s, with games in two successive years at the old Lansdowne Road. There was another the following decade, when Notre Dame hammered Navy at Croke Park in 1996. The university first forged its links with the Naughtons that year. The sport returned to Ireland as a tourism event in 2012 as part of the Gathering initiative. The GAA then hosted Penn State and University of Central Florida in 2014.
Two years later, the current organisers, Irish American Events (IAE), took over, although its principals had worked in different capacities on previous matches here. IAE’s 2016 debut as full promoter was between Georgia Tech and Boston College at the Aviva, the most recent game played here. They didn’t pack out the stadium but the event was more broadly a success.
With next year’s return of Notre Dame and the travelling army of the Fighting Irish, a sell-out at the Aviva game appears odds on. After that, it gets trickier. The organisers must convince other US colleges, with less obvious Irish links, that it is a good idea to shift one of their annual games to Dublin.
IAE is a true transatlantic commercial effort. It is a 50/50 joint venture between Irish events specialist Corporate.ie, run by Fire and Sole restaurateur Padraic O’Kane, and US-based college sports travel agency, Anthony Travel, run by Notre Dame alumnus and South Bend resident John Anthony.
The series is a major financial investment. It costs up to $5 million (€4.5 million) in fees and charges just to get each game moved to Dublin. That’s essentially hello money, before any of the operating costs of the event, such as stadium fees.
“You’ve got to compensate teams for giving up a home game in the US. And you have to pay for their travel and the other costs of bringing their whole entourage to Dublin [each team will fill an entire Aer Lingus charter]. If you go in offering any less than that, they’re going to ask: why do it?” says O’Kane.
Sponsors will cover much of the initial cost. Aer Lingus, for example, will pick up the tab for the expensive charters. O’Kane says the organisers targeted Notre Dame-Navy for the first of the five-game series, with all of the university’s Irish links, as a banker to get the ball rolling. The teams for the 2021 game are due to be announced next month.
“For 2021, both universities and cities have very little affiliation with Ireland,” says O’Kane. That means their fans will travel to Dublin in smaller numbers. IAE hopes that, by then, the annual event will be more prominent and popular among local Irish fans, who will take up the slack putting bums on seats. The business model for games after 2020 requires about 20,000 to fly in from the US.
There is some extra jam for the promoters. Separate to IAE, O’Kane’s company will sell all associated corporate hospitality around the games, while Anthony’s eponymous agency will sell the travel packages to US team fans, many of whom will tour the country for a week.
O’Kane says the corporate angle is crucial to the commercial success of the games. With a series of fringe networking events, he plans to turn the days around each sporting fixture into a grand, transatlantic corporate networking jamboree.
“The football is a vehicle to bring all of this together,” he says. “For example, we will have 500 people for lunch the day before the game in the Mansion House Round Room for the US-Ireland CEO club. In 2016, the [Boston College Chief Executives Club lunch] speaker was Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca Cola. To be honest, if we don’t satisfy the corporate side, we will struggle to satisfy our sponsors, the Grant Thorntons, the Aer Linguses, and so on.”
O’Kane is seeking more Irish companies to get involved, if they have ideas for further business events that could be arranged around the games.
Sales of travel packages for the 2020 game are already 80 per cent more than what they were at the same time ahead of the 2016 event, according to Anthony. Part of that is the Irish draw for Notre Dame. Part of it is down to currency.
“The strong dollar helps,” says Anthony. “It has made it more affordable, although hotels in Dublin are still very expensive. There’s not a lot of variables, but the currency rate is one of them. We were able to do a price drop recently on some things because of the dollar.”
The Government is content to funnel subventions to the event through the state agencies’ direct involvement. The 2012 game during the Gathering was a shot in the arm for a then-moribund tourism sector. The backdrop for the 2020 game, with tourism now at record levels, is much different.
But with Brexit threatening to queer the pitch for UK visitor numbers to the city, dropping an extra 35,000 US visitors into Dublin, even if it coincides with All-Ireland football final weekend, is a healthy fallback for hoteliers, restaurateurs and publicans.
“There is a multiplier effect and it gets distributed everywhere,” says Michael D’Arcy, Minister of State at the Department of Finance, who joined Naughton’s Irish delegation to Notre Dame this month to promote the 2020 game.
“Each one of these games equates to the biggest movements of US people abroad for a sports event. But the US visitors are coming for more than sport. They want to do the Wild Atlantic Way. They want to make business connections, forge friendships. And some will want to reconnect to their Irish roots. That’s a hugely powerful addition to the strength of the Irish diaspora.”
Notre Dame, with its Irish links going back to the late 19th century, remains a strongly Catholic institution. It is also a financial juggernaut.
Fr John Jenkins is the university’s president, overseeing a sprawling institution with an endowment fund of more than $13 billion, a campus four times the size of UCD’s Belfield, yet with a student body less than half the size of its Irish counterpart.
Speaking pitchside at the Notre Dame-New Mexico game, with 80,000 fans screaming in the background, Fr Jenkins was effusive as he explained why, eight years after its last visit, Notre Dame wants to play another game in Ireland.
“Our last game in Dublin was a wonderful experience of Ireland and the Notre Dame family coming together. We expect this one to be the same,” says Fr Jenkins.
“The spirit of the Fighting Irish is so important – of staying together, of overcoming obstacles, and connecting to something bigger than your own narrow interests. That’s what we seek and find in Ireland, and it’s what we nurture here. We have a great affinity with the people of your country.”
With that, he retreats to watch the game. It is a four-hour spectacle punctuated by marching bands, fighter jet flyovers, and an atmosphere as American as apple pie.
A few hours after Naughton’s rallying cry, the Notre Dame team finally obliterates New Mexico by 66 points to 14. Navy must be gulping ahead of next year’s game in Dublin. Go Irish, indeed.