Leading Sport – Bernard O’Byrne

As part of our Leading Sport series of interviews with those determining the future of sport in Ireland we caught up with Bernard O’Byrne, Secretary General of Basketball Ireland to speak about a fine summer and a bright future for the sport.

O’Byrne has long been a player at the top end of Irish sport.  He was Chief Executive of the FAI before John Delaney and stood for the Presidency of the Olympic Council of Ireland earlier this year.  He joined Basketball at a time when it was struggling but has been central to turning that around to the good place it is now in…

Sport for Business: The Euro Championships for the U18 Women were a great success.  Did you imagine it could have been as good as it turned out?

Bernard O’Byrne: Good planning is always about preparing for the best case and the worst case.  Our best case was likely to get to the Quarter Finals as we had previously finished sixth.  Getting to the final was remarkable but you know it was less about the medals and much more the manner of the success and how it garnered the support of the whole of the sport.

There was a wonderful domino effect where a little bit of positivity led to a little bit more and if you keep it going suddenly it’s a wave.

Now, of course, the big challenge is that we build on that and that we don’t sit back.

How does such a raising of the bar set you up for the next season and beyond?

Well having twelve young women who have European Silver medals is a fantastic thing for them.  That is the new benchmark for us and it’s at a higher level that we’ve ever had in Irish basketball on the European stage.

Inevitably in sport as in life, when the bar is raised people do tend to rise to meet it.  For next year the U18 team will be playing at European A but the coach is up for it and we have a number of the team that won in Dublin this summer will still be eligible.

Is there strength in depth?

Yes, we’ve had a U17 development squad that has been preparing to step up and there was a very strong cohort of players at that age so selection for the squad this season will be a real achievement and that’s the way it should be and needs to be.

Next year’s U16’s will be looking up and seeing where they aspire to be.  Our coaching set up is strong and we have encouraged a greater cross-pollination of thinking and ideas across the coaching set-up which has proven to be of real benefit.

How are you fixed now from a financial perspective?

We have a self-funding model around the international teams and we have conquered our debt issues so we are in an OK place where we need to decide where to invest now we are in a position to do so again.

Basketball Ireland pays 20 percent of the €90,000 cost of each international team over a two-year cycle and the rest is self-driven through fundraising. We have 12 teams so that is a substantial commitment but we can manage it.

We work closely to identify ways in which we can support the teams in the most effective but also the most efficient manner.

We have a dynamic Super League and National League, expanded again this year and there will be choices to be made on where we can put money smartly in order to keep growing.

What’s the next major project on the horizon?

Well, we already have the European Small nations Championships which have been assigned to us for 1918 so that will hopefully as much of a winner as the U18’s was in August.

That’s for our Senior Women and with the logistics challenge being less than for the 23 teams we hosted at U18 we will be well equipped to manage that.

FIBA was very impressed with how you handled that size of the tournament, as big and as complex across two venues as any they would manage. That must have been a source of great satisfaction.

It was a great team effort from everyone involved. As ever there was a lot of stuff in the background but we were able to resolve those issues as they arose and the Basketball community was really buoyed by it.

There were some very emotional nights. We had people who have been involved with the sport over decades and were saying they had never experienced nights like these. That is really good stuff and you know you are heading in the right direction.

Where does the sport go next?

We need to be careful and strategic about how we develop and how we invest and there are strategic proposals going to the board which I believe will put us in a good place.

The National League is turning into a juggernaut, in a very positive sense. We set out to spread the geographic nature of the League and that is happening organically. This year we have a new Senior Women’s team from Ballyshannon.

There is a new entity in Ballincollig who are stepping up to senior level on the back of winning juvenile structures.

Year on year it is getting stronger structurally and with the right standard of playa and entertainment.

I’ve been to games in Tralee where the gym was packed with 800 and it felt like 10,000.

There is a Sport Changes Life tournament in Belfast this Christmas with four college teams coming over from the US and we have cleared fixtures so that the overall sport can get behind this as one.

How are the facilities that teams are playing in?

We have challenges at some of our venues but only a small number and when it comes to the bigger facilities we are good. We have new gyms and facilities in Waterford, Galway, Letterkenny, and Galway.

The challenge for many of our 240 clubs is the cost of using facilities. One real bugbear is the number of school gyms which could be available but which are closed at 4 pm and unavailable for community-based teams. I have made that point to successive Ministers of Education and while I understand issues around insurance but it should not be beyond us to sort out a better solution matching what we have as a society with what we need as a society.

What are the areas that excite you most at the start of the new season?

In a sporting context, most of us look to the green vest so the two competitions for small nations, for the Women here in Ireland and the men in Andorra are exciting opportunities. Success there would open the door to the B level and that would be a big winner.

With new international competition structures modelled on those of football that could present us with the opportunity to play in a group, perhaps as fourth seeds for starters but that could see us coming up against the likes of Turkey or Spain over the coming years. That would light up the whole of the sport.

Is FIBA a supportive body?

They are very supportive in terms of finance as well as infrastructure and we have boxed clever in that setting in recent years.

In 2016 we hosted the European Congress, the U18’s were the biggest tournament of the summer and we will host the Women’s Small Nations next year so at a high level across Europe people know what we are capable of and are willing to assist us.

Basketball has had a good year and it’s got plenty to look forward to. With 50,000 players across age groups and a sense of the possible from what Claire Melia and her colleagues achieved at the National Arena in August, there is a very solid base in which to grow.

Basketball Ireland is one of the more than 230 organisations that play an active part in the Sport for Business community.  

The Leading Sport series is in partnership with our friends at PwC

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Image Credit Inpho


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