American Football is one of those marmite sports where you either love it or simply don’t get it. So far 2018 has been one of spectacular games and performances in the NFL with Monday night producing a 54-51 win for the LA Rams over the Kansas City Chiefs, the equivalent of Ireland beating in an eight-try thriller.
For the real aficionados though, the heartbeat of the sport lies in College Football and Ireland is about to get an extended taste of just why that is.
The Aer Lingus College Football Classic will be staged in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium for each of five consecutive years from 2020, a massive multi-million investment but one which has enormous economic, tourism and sporting potential.
Just as London has secured its place as the overseas home of the NFL, so too will Dublin lay claim to that title in the college game.
We sat down with the man behind the Classic Padraic O’Kane to find out just what it took to get to this point and what it can deliver for Ireland.
Sport for Business: We’ve had games here before but on what seemed at times to be an ad hoc basis. How important is the consistency of this five-year commitment?
Padraic O’Kane: We have been working on this since 2016 when Boston College and Georgia Tech left Dublin after a great weekend.
It’s a huge undertaking and we needed to create a meaningful business plan that we could stand over in order to attract the right teams. Compensating a team for giving up a home game where they might be attracting a crowd of over anything from 40,000 to 100,000 requires a lot of commitment from a financial as well as every other perspective.
We have that now from great partners including Aer Lingus and the State who have both been able to see clearly what this can deliver.
It does not work on a pure ticketing play as the costs involved are high so it needed a bit of imagination and a bit of faith and that’s what has come together. Notre Dame and Navy will kick things off in style in 2020 and that will be followed by four years back to back, each of which will be announced two years in advance to give the maximum opportunity for travelling fans and business connections to be established.
A lot of events will sell themselves on the tourism potential. How strong is that for the College Football Classic?
In 2012 we brought 35,000 American fans over for the last Notre Dame Navy game. In 2014 and 2016 that number was just below 20,000 but in 2020 we expect to be back up at 35,000 and early ticket sales from the US give us great confidence in that number.
Notre Dame has a great connection to Ireland and their fans see something special in being here.
In 2012 Brown Thomas reported that they had their strongest ever day of sales that year, more than Christmas Eve of the previous year. These fans are not just land, watch and leave. They are staying for a number of days and more as well as travelling onwards from Dublin to Kerry, Galway and other spots so the benefit is seen on an All Island basis and not just in and around Ballsbridge.
How important was it to get Notre Dame for this first marquee game?
They have Go Irish as their strapline so the connection runs deep. They opened up a facility at Kylemore Abbey after their last visit and they also have a place in Dublin so at any one time they have probably 100 students living and studying in Ireland.
The Naughton family who sit on our steering group, and have been wonderful supporters throughout, have long held positions as Trustees of the College, the only non-US people to do so.
As one of the biggest fan bases, they will only really be able to take a game on the road once every eight or ten years but that schedule fitted well with our ambitions and they were the team we really wanted to start the series.
In terms of creating the sense of Dublin as a hub for Europe, how will that play out?
We are committed to bringing a Division One team over to Dublin in each of the five years. That sends a message to fans of the sport here, across Europe and across the United States that this is not just a novelty but a serious staging post in the expansion of College sport on an international basis.
We also plan on ours being the opening fixture of each season which brings another level of hype and expectation.
In 2020 we will be Week Zero, meaning a stand-alone game. It will be a 5 PM kick off here at the Aviva Stadium, 12 Noon on the Eastern seaboard.
The average TV audience over the last three games has been 2.5 million but the conservative estimate for 2020 is 4 Million and there is the potential for many more given that it’s the first game of the campaign and the timings are better than before.
Was creating Week Zero a big challenge to overcome?
It’s a big boost for the game and we had to work hard and close with the NCAA to achieve it.
There was a precedent from an international game in Australia and they have ambition across all the sports under their remit to expand in international markets so its a fit with their long-term strategy as well as ours.
You talk of this as being ‘Much More than a Game.’ What does that mean in reality?
It is an important sporting occasion but there really is so much more to it. In terms of tourism potential the numbers travelling are very significant and at a very high level of value to all the stakeholders.
For those millions that might not travel for the game but will be glued to their screen, they will see loving postcards of Ireland as part of the broadcasts that money couldn’t buy if they had to be paid for as advertising.
Fáilte Ireland are great to have on board alongside Aer Lingus for whom their expansion in the US to a current 15 destinations and more by 2020, makes it a great fit.
Dublin City Council is on board as a key partner and we want the city to really come alive for these games.
The 2020 game will be played on the same weekend as the All Ireland Football Final at Croke Park so it promises to be one of the biggest sporting weekends we have ever had.
That means we will be hosting the biggest single movement of American sporting fans for a single event in 2020, on the same weekend as we will see 82,000 fans pack Croke Park and coming only weeks after Dublin has staged four games in the Euro 2020 Championship Finals.
That’s the kind of sustained level of excellence in hosting major events that makes the world sit up and take notice. and that’s what makes this more than one game of American Football.
Your personal passion for this is obvious. How did you first get involved?
I got involved in 2011 when my business Corporate.ie was asked to organise the pep rallies for the teams. I had to google what a pep rally was but once I saw it I knew it would be great.
Since then I have grown to know the sport at a much deeper level and the connection it has to graduates of colleges is something which we can barely imagine in Ireland. It’s a hugely exciting project to be involved in and to have the support of Government all the way to having Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launch the game this year is very satisfying.
How much will tickets be for the first game and when will they go on sale?
The focus is on America first. Looking to bring those 35,000 travelling fans. You have to go early to allow people to plan into their schedules and the reaction in the first couple of weeks has been outstanding.
We will be in contact with fans here who have attended matches before but its likely that it will be March 2020 before local ticket sales go on release through Ticketmaster.
What kind of teams might we be seeing in the other four years?
We have already opened up serious discussion with a number of teams. The home team focus for years two and three is likely to be based on their quality as opposed to a gigantic home base.
We are very focused on the strong business case that we have to offer and colleges are excited looking at the international expansion it can bring for their student body and their alumni.
Are you committed to the Aviva Stadium for the full five years?
Yes, we are committed to hosting all five games here. The size of the stadium works very well and all the partners from Martin Murphy through to the IRFU and the FAI have been very supportive.
We have spoken about the issues of a potential clash with an International Fixture but the stadium can be turned around within 24 hours from one sport to another so we will make that work.
Are you bringing the High School element this year that we have seen in the past?
Yes, we are looking to bring six games involving twelve teams from High Schools across the country. That will add to the numbers coming over as well as the long-term connections we can foster between Ireland and the US.
They will be at an education as well as a sporting level and we will be able to bring those games out to a wider audience that we might be able to fit in for the big one.
What’s your focus now for the next year and a bit?
Primarily in the US at first. We will be on the ground at a Notre Dame and a Navy Game in each of the next two seasons.
We will be building out our business programme here. Last time we had 500 of the top CEO’s from Ireland and America at the Mansion House to hear the Global CEO of Coca-Cola tell his story. The connections we can enable through events around the game are very exciting.
And finally, how much of a difference do you think it will make having the five games locked in?
It’s hugely important to have the consistency of an annual game. We will announce each one two years out and the buzz that is generated on a game weekend is massive.
In the past, that has been somewhat lost but being able to talk to people about next year’s game as this year’s is being played gives a real sense of continuity.
Sport has a linear narrative and we want to ensure that the College Football Classic is in people’s minds and diaries for this time of year on a long-term basis.
The Aer Lingus College Football Classic will take place at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium at 5 PM on Saturday, August 29th. Make sure to put it in your electronic diaries now, repeating on an annual basis for five years.
Image Credits; Inpho.ie