IVAN YATES: Sports blazers must dust themselves down or risk facing the end game

REPORTS indicate the frailty of male mental health. Stress and depression are leading to more psychiatric hospital admissions. Statistics indicate male suicide is up 40%.

In relation to the economy, if you are not depressed you simply don’t understand the situation. In this context, for many men and adolescent young lads the antidote is sport. Real escapism can be found in devotion to your team. Fanatical supporters have such fervour and loyalty it becomes part of their DNA, with the consequent bragging rights.

Die-hard loyalties to Liverpool and Man Utd are more likely to pass on to the next generation than previous traditional support for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, even though many have no connection or little awareness of these cities.

Hours of entertainment, particularly at the weekend, represents the brightest spot in a dark week. Televised sports coverage has never been better. The high-quality live action is fantastic. Sky, Setanta, ESPN, Eurosport, At The Races and the terrestrial channels provide a feast of sporting drama. Top-class soccer, rugby, Gaelic games, racing, golf, tennis, snooker, boxing, cricket, darts and other minority pursuits are catered for.

For “recessionistas”, the new going out is staying in. The total cost of TV packages is around €80 a month. While a grand a year is not cheap, you can reduce pub costs.

The economics of sport has been transformed by television revenues. Each sport has become an industry. Administrators have had to become chief executives. Business plans must replace vague organisational objectives.

The recession is impacting just as severely on sport as traded sectors of the economy. The blazers that run sporting organisations haven’t copped these new realities. Our sports organisations are not coping with new realities. They are confused between amateurism and business viability. Many do not have the skill-set to confront change.

Last week the good and great of the sporting fraternity trooped along to the Oireachtas committee on Arts, Sport and Tourism. The FAI, IRFU, GAA and OCI were joined by other minority sports representatives. They collectively bemoaned cuts of €100 million in state funding for their sector.

They placed the begging bowl in front of deputies and senators, seeking exemption from further cuts. Their mission is doomed to fail. How can any politician prioritise discretionary sports expenditure above essential services? The axing of a hospital beds, teacher posts or basic welfare subsistence payments to the most vulnerable in society cannot be defended in the context of continued levels of funding for the arts and sport. The overall €4bn in budget cuts will impact severely on sport. The FAI held their AGM last July. Their accounts show a deficit of €14.8m, compared to a surplus of €5.5m in 2007. The total loss was a staggering €16m. FAI salary costs have risen from €3m to €12m, while revenues have fallen from €44m to €38.3m.

The new Aviva stadium at Lansdowne Road was subject to a one-off unexplained payment of an €5.2m. The sale of long-term seats for the stadium remains a closely guarded secret. It seems they have been overpriced, with lots of unsold tickets. The FAI took on responsibility for the League of Ireland. This business rationale is becoming increasingly perilous. Prominent premier division clubs are teetering on the brink of insolvency. Cork City has endured a cash crisis throughout the past season. They may be dependent on a supporters group Foras to take over. Derry City, Dundalk, Drogheda Utd and Galway Utd have severe financial problems.

The cost structure of League of Ireland clubs is predicated upon a pay structure for players that cannot be sustained from gate revenues, advertising or sponsorship. Players are now being discarded as unaffordable. The league is in crisis. Maybe now is the time to reconsider the concept of a Wimbledon FC in Dublin to compete in the cross-channel football league. If successful, it could rely on home support of 40,000 at Lansdowne Road.

Professionalism or pay-for-play has transformed rugby in this country. The previous predominant club teams have been replaced by provinces. Teams of yesteryear – Wanderers, Terenure, St Mary’s, Shannon and Cork Con – have been relegated to a lowly backwater.

On the pitch, Irish rugby has never achieved more. Ireland won the grand slam for the first time in many decades. Both Munster and Leinster have won the Heineken Cup in spectacular and emotional circumstances. While Connacht continues to struggle, Ulster is emerging with the potential for future achievement. Elite players are gaining increased popularity for the sport.

Political thinking on sport is confused, woolly and incoherent. Lottery grants are used as a political slush fund at constituency level providing enhanced community facilities. Local school and parish club sports are flourishing because every weekend parents are bringing their youngsters to Gaelic, soccer and rugby pitches in greater numbers. At the very top and at grassroots level sporting structures are succeeding. It is in the middle tier that we cannot afford continued uncertainty. We need to reclassify the boundaries of professional sport, based on economic viability. The rest will have to pursue voluntary amateur endeavour. State subsidies won’t make up the difference.

The best feature of the Celtic Tiger era is the legacy of our sports facilities. Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, the O2 Arena (Point Depot) and City West, along with the upgrading of Thomond Park and the RDS, provide amphitheatres for the best in world sport.

THANK God, Bertie Ahern did not get his way with the Bertie Bowl at Abbotstown – it was the ultimate political vanity project. We need to maximise asset utilisation of our national sports facilities. Many Gaelic games would be more suited to a stadium with a capacity of 50,000 at Lansdowne Road. Key rugby and soccer matches, with a demand for up to 100,000 tickets, should be held in Croke Park. Sensible revenue-sharing arrangements could maximise the return to Irish sport.

The horse and greyhound racing industries received €76m in 2008 and €67m this year. Alan Dukes prepared a consultancy report on behalf of the thoroughbred breeders stating the Irish bloodstock industry is worth €1bn to the economy, with more than 22,000 full-time jobs and additional tourism benefits.

Many critics have derided the extent of taxpayer support for a perceived elitist sport. It makes no sense to have this industry under the care of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. It should revert back to the Department of Agriculture, so that it can be treated as an industry rather than a sport. Diminished taxpayer funds are a certainty. Consequent less prize money will be an inevitable outcome.

The ESRI published a sport report last year entitled Getting Out What You Put In. This seriously questioned the effectiveness of our public sports spend. Bord Snip recommended the abolition of the ministry and Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

Fundamental new thinking is required. Sports bodies need a new commercial customer focus based on the TV viewer. If sufficient revenue can’t be generated a radical rethink towards restoring Corinthian amateur values needs to pervade the lower echelons of our sport.


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