Aviva Stadium’s viability at stake as pandemic lingers

Like any business, the national football and rugby ground is facing a race against time

Brass tax. How long can the Aviva Stadium survive as a functioning business without supporters?

"Not very long," said stadium director Martin Murphy on the 10th anniversary for the horseshoe bowl that has welcomed seven million rugby, football and concert goers since the revamp of the ground.

“It’s not sustainable indefinitely but I don’t know when the crisis will really hit us. We hope to get over the next few months and see where we are going.”

Currently, the Defence Forces are on-site providing Covid-19 testing facilities for 400 people daily.

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It costs €5 million a year to keep the Aviva “ticking over”.

“We do have some reserves but we are burning through them,” said Murphy who rose to the rank of captain during 19 years service in the Army before joining the IRFU as director of corporate affairs and operations.

“We do have some revenue from the naming rights but primarily the FAI and IRFU are bearing the burden of running the stadium but the reality is their revenues have also dried up. We basically hit a wall in March and our business just dropped off a cliff.

“Even when the stadium is empty it still costs a phenomenal amount of money to keep it running. You have security, pitch maintenance, rates of €900,000, insurance before you open the door. There are staff costs on top of that.”

Like any business with massive overheads, the national football and rugby ground is running out of time.

Forensic planning is well underway to host soccer in July and interpro derbies in August but events without 50,000 fans, or most numbers below this, is not going to work long term.

“Economically,” says Murphy, “partial opening to supporters is unlikely to be viable.”

Still, sport will return to Lansdowne Road but it appears that the four provincial squads will need to live in quarantine, without contact from friends and family, to make this happen.

This will bring enormous problems in itself but the IRFU, like all professional sports organisations, are desperate to reopen for business during this deadly pandemic. The creation of a bubble around their athletes and coaches appears to be their solution.

High temperature

However, one high temperature could shut down the Aviva Stadium, and its idea for 168 accredited people, before the players get to even lace their boots.

“Whatever systems are put in place by the teams, the players and coaches would be safe and secure,” said Murphy. “The IRFU have done a protocol for return to training and return to play.

“That envisages the guys are isolated; that they are not associating with anyone outside their own environment. It puts quite a difficult onus on the players.”

That rules out a return to family homes?

“That’s my understanding of it,” Murphy responded. “Talking to Juventus, their view is the players would live together. Effectively they are away from any possible contamination.

“I don’t know if that is practical or how practical that will turn out to be because it is a big infringement on people’s liberty.”

The return to rugby plan is overseen by Dr Rod McLoughlin, the IRFU medical director, who has seen the Bundesliga blueprints.

Murphy’s stadium staff intends to form a “cocoon” around 58 players, 14 coaching staff, 12 match officials and medics when professional rugby is reintroduced in Ireland.

“My understanding is there would be certainty around the teams and match officials that they are [coronavirus-free],” Murphy continued. “That they have been isolated. There is criteria laid down, by the FAI or IRFU, that we do not have to worry about them. We just worry about creating a safe and sterile cocoon for them to operate in.”

The IRFU, when asked for comment, responded: “A number of options are being looked at by tournament organisers, but we have nothing further to add.”

What happens if one player arrives at the stadium entrance with a high temperature?

“There is a Covid isolation room,” Murphy explained. “There will be a doctor, who is separate from both teams, who would deal with that person. You put that person in a zone away from everyone else. If that happens that would probably trigger the event being postponed or cancelled.”