O’Byrne lays out his Hoop dreams

Another January afternoon out in Tallaght and the National Basketball Arena is throbbing, writes Kieran Shannon.

O’Byrne lays out his Hoop dreams

It’s not the Premier League National Cup finals that are on. Instead as we enter as lively a spot as you could get in the country last Wednesday afternoon, it’s an U19C girls game that has the place hopping.

The All-Ireland Schools finals are now into their third day and there in a snapshot, the sport’s past and future stream into one.

As hundreds of schoolkids chant and stomp their feet, two familiar faces either side of the score table are just as animated. Liam McHale is coaching Gortnor Abbey from Crossmolina. Ed Randolph, the amiable Floridian who first came here 30 years ago, is still spreading the hoops gospel, cupping his hands in the hope the guard of his Muckross Park School team can hear him above the din.

In the corner of the arena, Presentation Brothers Cork are limbering up for their U16A final. There among them with a ball in each arm is Seanie Murphy. Forty years ago he was captaining Ireland. The first senior men’s National Cup in 1984, he was coaching Blue Demons. A couple of years later he was coaching them again when they had a standout American player called Anthony Jenkins. Today in Tallaght, Murphy is coaching the man’s son, Sean. Like McHale and Randolph, he’s still here. It’s still his game.

Upstairs, Bernard O’Byrne overlooks it all. He’s taken in quite a lot of the schools action over the last few days, and fed off the energy of the screeching kids and sneakers as well as the service of lifers like Murphy.

“I always say that in basketball you’re never sure who you’re talking to,” he smiles. “It’s very likely someone else’s brother in law or some other connection. But that’s what makes it. How families from generation to generation stay involved in the sport and how tight the community is.”

Ultimately though he can only watch on so much on days like this. There’s senior cup finals to prepare for and a sport to strategise for.

He’s been here almost four years now. The sport was on its knees when he assumed the role of Basketball Ireland chief executive. Eighteen months earlier Debbie Massey resigned from the post. The sport suffered the humiliating disbanding of its entire international programme. Almost overnight a full-time staff of 27 was cut to 12. Relations with the Irish Sports Council were toxic. If one sporting governing body reflected the Irish economy of the time, Basketball Ireland did.

Now Irish basketball is seeing the light again. To the point, O’Byrne believes, that it could soon see the return of senior international teams again.

The debt is now down to €500,000 from €1.2m. At some point over the next two years, all repayments should be met. In the last two years the U16 and U18 international programmes have been restored. A few months ago a dedicated sponsorship manager, John Montgomery, previously of the RDS, was appointed. Derek McGrath, former chief executive of the ERC (European Rugby Cup), sits on the board of directors. That’s some heavy hitters the sport has in its corner. But until they have the senior green vest to also dangle there, O’Byrne realises there’s only so much they can do.

“The international teams have to come back and come back soon. Both for the sport and also for the commercial and sponsorship end of things. Because when you are making your presentation to big international companies, it goes without saying the green shirt is the thing you need to be able to show them. And while it’s okay to be talking about U16 and U18 teams, you need to be able to talk about senior international activity in your sport.”

Last weekend on the eve of its National Cup finals, a consultancy process within the sport began. Line Up Sports Media Entertainment who have worked with other national governing bodies were one of six agencies that tendered for the job of consulting the basketball community — “everyone and anyone in it,” promises O’Byrne — over the next three months to help formulate a short, medium and long-term goal for the sport.

O’Byrne is happy for such an external agency to do it — “If I go down and talk to somebody, they’re liable to tell me what they think I want to hear. I want them to talk to someone independent and give their real views” — but he may be more proactive when it comes to making a call on the return of the senior international teams. His urgency may be because of what he’s been privy to. O’Byrne now sits on the financial committee of Fiba Europe while his experience with the FAI and Fifa has also given him an insight into how the sport’s global leaders are thinking.

Instead of going head-to-head with the Fifa World Cup, Fiba are moving its world championships to an odd year, beginning with 2017. Qualification for such a tournament will be along the lines of how football operates. Whereas the Irish senior women’s team was operated in the second of three tiers before it was so cruelly pulled, now qualification will go back to seeing you pitted against some top seeds and teams, such as France and Spain.

If O’Byrne gets his way, Colin O’Reilly could be going up against a Tony Parker before the end of the year.

“Fiba have hired en masse five of the guys I would have known from Fifa to come and devise and market this system. They would have been involved in marketing the Champions League when it started out.

“So Fiba are very serious about all this. Their strategic plan is that by 2020, basketball will be the most watched sport in the world (instead of just second). That’s a big statement. And 2017 is central to that.

“The qualification stages for 2017 begin in late autumn this year. So we need to make a decision soon. It’s not a decision that you delay for a year.

“The phrase I’d use is that when 2017 leaves the station, we want to be on that train. We don’t want to be on the platform. So we need to get back in — ASAP.”

Fiba aren’t the only influential sporting body O’Byrne has reestablished healthy relations with. Ask him how matters are with the Irish Sports Council that would help provide funding for such future international programmes and O’Byrne is robust in his confidence. “I would doubt that there is a national governing body that has a better relationship now with the Sports Council than Basketball Ireland. It has been totally turned around. On Saturday night, John Treacy was our guest of honour (at the cup finals) for the second time in four years. The relationship could not be better. And I know John has held us up as an example to other NGBs that might be going through testing times as to how you can turn it around.”

How have things turned around? What did the Sports Council need to see? “It started with monthly meetings telling them exactly what our next step on the road back was and the important thing was that we got to every step that we told them about. We didn’t give a grandiose plan for three years down the road. We said that when we come back in here next month, we’ll have done X, when we come back in three months, Y will have been done.

“They needed to see that we weren’t just flying on the seat of our pants. They needed to see we had a plan for the sport and that we had a financial plan and that we were hitting milestones as we went along.”

Some restructuring of its national competitions were favourably viewed as among those milestones, such as doing away with a highly convoluted and flawed conference system for the men’s premier league that could still allow some sides with a 40% win record to make and win the league playoffs. Another vital milestone was rolling out the first full nationwide registration scheme. That brings in €200,000 a year for the association, which is also the profit figure it strives to reach each year — and has successfully met the last couple.

But O’Byrne is aware of how far he and the sport must go. Not enough people go to Premier League games. There aren’t enough Premier League teams; O’Byrne envisages 12 in contrast to the current levels of 10 (men’s) and 9 (women’s). The sport needs a higher profile and clearer pathway. Take those girls playing below for Gortnor Abbey. What national league club can they aspire to playing for? “We need clubs to work harder to provide that link with schools. Area boards need to be encouraged to have the ambition to have a national league club in their area. That (aspiration) doesn’t exist in the area board mentality at the moment.

“There have been discussions about inventing or reverting to some kind of county situation where you have a Mayo team or a Kerry team but it’s no secret to say it’s very hard to get neighbours to cooperate. Now, in Cork, you’d still have your Neptune and your Demons because Cork is big enough to have at least two Premier League clubs. But take a place like Galway where the raw material is there. There have been talks about the likes of Titans, Moycullen and Maree coming together to form one really strong Galway team. It’s only through people persuading others of the benefits and the right people getting into the right positions that it can happen.

“If Basketball Ireland tries to impose it, it won’t happen.”

He maintains it’s the same with teams coming up from Division One; if you insist they come up to the Premier where outlay is more expensive, they may fold altogether. But they can be encouraged.

He can see down the line the cup being reformatted and possibly even rescheduled. But there are other priorities, like finding more sponsors, with separate packages for the international programme, premier leagues and schools cups. Hiring a full-time designated men’s Premier League commissioner. And appointing a technical/performance director for the sport. “That’s not far in the distance. It’s essential to have that.”

And always there’s referees. Unlike their counterparts in other sports, they are a highly-organised, almost-unionised, and highly powerful group, but at the cost of seeming self-serving and aloof from its players and coaches.

“There is a love-hate relationship there with the referees. There’s no one who has as many rows with the referees than I do, yet at the same time I help them when I can and they feature very highly in our internal funding. I can see the strains that can come about through some of their attitudes but we talk it out, we’re not at war. They know that they need to be part of the game, that they just can’t be a law unto themselves. They were the first group in my tenure to come up with a development plan so they are very well organised. But practically every week I get letters into me about the standard of referees in certain games so when they are as persistent as that, the NRC (National Referees Committee) do need to get on top of it. And they’re aware that I think that.” If he sorts that one out, that would be his greatest achievement.

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