NFL at Croker the next step

Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna says attracting American football, including NFL games, to the stadium is part of a long-term strategy designed to help the GAA to maintain its financial independence.

Discussing tomorrow’s Croke Park Classic between Penn State and UCF, McKenna pointed out that the game would underline Croke Park’s suitability as a venue for future games.

“The NFL has had an experiment going with games in London for some years, and they’re very appreciative of that. They’re not going to put more games into London, but I think eventually they’ll put a franchise in Europe to capture that part of the market.

“Rather than letting them focus all their activities in London, we feel we have an opportunity to attract American football here.

“We’ve had some experience of American football at the college level here in the past, in the ’90s, but we decided to try to prove this concept would fly by specifically finding two college teams which didn’t have massive numbers of Irish alumni.

“This is going to bring approximately 16,000 Americans across here, 4,000 people coming in from Europe, and with local attendance, we’d expect 50,000-plus in Croke Park tomorrow for the game, a good crowd.

“It’s an amateur sport and fits nicely with our ethos, and sport is always a better use of a stadium than a concert because you don’t have rigs, trucks, and all that’s associated with it. We’re aiming to build Dublin as a venue for American football, to get as many of these games as possible. That’s what we’re turning our attention to, though over a 10 to 12-year period.”

Regarding the All-Ireland SFC semi-final between Kerry and Mayo being moved to Limerick, and the accompanying furore, McKenna said: “No-one wanted our stars to feel discommoded. That was never our intention. The facts are that there was a draw, and Limerick was the venue for the replay.

“In general I think this has needed a more balanced, reflective debate in some quarters: megaphone diplomacy doesn’t accomplish anything.

“[Limerick secretary] Mike O’Riordan and his team have done a great job, the Gaelic Grounds is a terrific venue and was very good for the International Rules game.

“Don’t forget, Limerick is a very competitive city. Thomond Park is there and there’s always a battle in the city for hearts and minds, and the fact that Limerick compete at the top level in hurling and Gaelic football is a huge testament to the work being done there.

“There are a lot of good reasons for having the game there. The venue is great, the gardaí there have a good understanding of how to handle big events, and it’s the City of Culture as well.”

McKenna added that retaining its financial independence meant the GAA wasn’t “as restricted” as it would be if it were reliant on outside sources for funding, and enabled the organisation to take actions which didn’t make financial sense, as he put it.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on being a self-supporting organisation, and that gives us a huge ability to be masters of our own destiny.

“If we were reliant on taxpayers’ money, for instance, then we would be far more restricted in what we could do, in terms of things that don’t make financial sense but which are massively important, such as schools games in Croke Park and so forth.

“We’ve been prudent in our spending. Croke Park is now debt-free, which is a massive achievement seven years into a recession. We’re great for the banks because we pay off loans ahead of time and then go again, reinvesting back in bricks and mortar such as the developments in Belfast, Cork and Abbotstown, or games development officers and so on, which all goes back into the economy.

“We also have commitments to the diaspora: the Department of Foreign Affairs recently issued a report stressing the centrality of the overseas GAA club as a totem to Irish people in foreign countries.”

The stadium director also appealed for a long-term view of what the GAA was trying to accomplish with events such as the Croke Park Classic.

“You’re trying to show with these that Ireland can run world-class sports events. We’ve had the Ryder Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Tall Ships Race, the Giro D’Italia, the Tour de France. In order to build these, you’ve got to have a bigger vision, a 10 to 12-year vision. I think when a Reeling In The Years is done in years to come, 2014 will be seen as the year the acorn was planted.”

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