Friday’s appearance of sporting leaders in front of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 provided a stark reminder of the impact that the shutdown and restrictions on sport has had.

Each of Philip Browne from the IRFU, John Horan and Tom Ryan from the GAA and Gary Owens and Mark Scanlon from the FAI spoke in turn of multi-million hits to the bottom line with Browne raising the viability of professional rugby were things not to change with regard to attendance in 2021.

In the annual figures to June, 2019 Irish rugby took in revenues of €84 million from representative matches, far and away the most reliant of the sports on attendance.  In the figures to be published shortly relating to 2020, that figure will be hugely down with an operating loss about to be recorded of €35 million.

It had been expected the loss would have been only ten per cent of that with the financial year being the one in four at the start of a World Cup cycle where the Autumn Series of Internationals is sacrificed for the greater overall gain of the Rugby World Cup.

The loss of a home Guinness 6 Nations tie against Italy and an away match against France has been a major blow, as has the loss of income from the Heineken Cup and Guinness PRO14 fixtures.

Each of the three bodies are working closely to provide evidence from around the world of how a return to sporting attendance is being successfully managed while at the same time maintaining strict adherence to public health matters.

A return to even 5,000 in the Aviva Stadium or Croke Park would be welcome for those who managed to get in but would have no beneficial impact for the sporting bodies who will be seeking to get to a figure four or five times that with one metre distance between patrons.

The GAA is forecasting a loss of up to €50 million to its financial bottom line in 2020 though with the All Ireland Championships yet to start there may yet be some clawing back of that were the health picture to improve dramatically in the coming weeks.

There are longer term issues for the FAI with UEFA beginning now to look at the venues preparedness for the staging of the postponed Euro 2020 Finals.

Dublin is to host four matches with the attendant financial boost that would provide but public health and Government approaches will have to be considered as part of the UEFA review and at present Ireland’s restrictions would be tighter than some.  That said Madrid and possibly London will be entering tighter phases this week so the picture is ever changing.

The Government has responded already with a figure of €40 million being made available to the three main sporting bodies as part of an overall €70 million sports package to mitigate the worst impacts of the pandemic and the lockdown.

That will help in the short term but it is the longer term return of fans, the continued support of sponsors and the abiding connection with fans that will deliver the ultimate saving financial panacea to a year that could never have been imagined and which is a long way yet from being over.

In our Sport for Business Onside Sports Impact Monitor published last week the 100+ member organisations of Sport for Business felt that it would be 2021 before any appreciable return of fans to stadia.

The stark reality or at least the perception among those who want it to happen quicker is that 52 per cent believe it will require a vaccine before we get to anything like what was the accepted norm a year ago.

One third think it will be 2022 at least before we get back to more than half a full house.

Those figures are worrying in the context of what we heard on Friday.


Listen back to Rob Hartnett in an extended interview on RTÉ 2FM’s Game On from Friday Night.