On the ball

Sell­ing out any sport­ing event is no mean feat, writes Malachy Clerkin, es­pe­cially when fans are trav­el­ling thou­sands of miles to be there

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

ONA QUIET Tues­day af­ter­noon back in March, with­out any great de­gree of fan­fare or fuss, the tick­et­mas­ter.ie site went live with the first and last chance for the Ir­ish pub­lic to buy ad­mis­sion to to­mor­row’s col­lege football game be­tween Notre Dame and Navy at the Aviva sta­dium. There had been a small pub­lic­ity cam­paign be­fore­hand but noth­ing com­pared to the usual hurry-hurry-hurry that ac­com­pa­nies ev­ery last gig and gala in Dublin. De­spite the low-key build-up, the tick­ets sold out in less than two hours.

At a time in Ire­land where no sport­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion is able to put on a game of any sort with­out tak­ing heat over the price of get­ting through the gate, this was a com­plete anom­aly. Here was an event that had peo­ple clank­ing their mice off their desks in frus­tra­tion at not be­ing able to hand over a min­i­mum of ¤40 to get into a game in which, re­al­is­ti­cally, few Ir­ish peo­ple will be able to name more than a hand­ful of play­ers. Even al­low­ing for the re­cent swell of in­ter­est in Amer­i­can football in Ire­land, you’d have imag­ined get­ting a ticket for what isn’t even an NFL game shouldn’t have proved dif­fi­cult. There had to be an ex­pla­na­tion.

There was. The tick­ets sold out so quickly be­cause most of the hard work had al­ready been done by the or­gan­is­ers. More than 32,000 tick­ets had been sold to peo­ple in the US who were com­mit­ted to mak­ing the trip, with al­most 25,000 of those tick­ets go­ing to Notre Dame alumni and sup­port­ers. By the time they got around to sell­ing the event to the Ir­ish pub­lic, there were only about 13,000 tick­ets left. And so, when kick-off takes place in the Aviva to­mor­row, about two-thirds of the ac­cents in the ground will have a twang that ex­tends much fur­ther west than Con­nemara.

In which case, the first job here is ob­vi­ously to com­pli­ment you on your choice of news­pa­per. Maith thú, as we might say. Or Maw Who, as you might say. It means well done, and it’s one of the few na­tive phrases that just about any of us can pull off with some­thing ap­proach­ing con­fi­dence. Ask us for an­other and we’ll more than likely just buy you a drink to hide our em­bar­rass­ment.

For us, this is prob­a­bly lit­tle more than a tourist cu­rio, the sport­ing equiv­a­lent of last week­end’s Tall Ships brouhaha but on a slightly smaller scale. To the trav­el­ling sup­port, how­ever, this is a game that

It’s the first game of the col­lege football sea­son in the US and the be­gin­ning of what looks set to be a tough one for both sides

mat­ters. It’s the first one of the col­lege football sea­son in the US and the be­gin­ning of what looks set to be a tough sea­son for both sides.

For the unini­ti­ated, the col­lege game in the US is off the scale in com­par­i­son to, say, the hairy old Siger­son and Fitzgib­bon Cup we have in Ire­land. In many in­stances, football sus­tains the aca­demic pro­grammes of whole uni­ver­si­ties, bring­ing in more rev­enue than these in­sti­tu­tions can spend. It’s the breed­ing ground for play­ers who are try­ing to make it to the NFL and is af­forded enor­mous cov­er­age on all the Amer­i­can sports net­works and in their me­dia. The one worth­while com­par­i­son to be made to Ir­ish sport is the fact that de­spite play­ing in front of crowds in ex­cess of 60,000 each week at the high­est level, none of the play­ers are paid.

Notre Dame are a some­what faded power these days, a dis­tance re­moved from the Fight­ing Ir­ish pow­er­house of yore. They last won a na­tional cham­pi­onship in 1988, yet they still garner huge sup­port from their base in South Bend, In­di­ana. They have had their own TV deal worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars with NBC since 1991, with the cur­rent one run­ning un­til at least 2015. Their home ground at Notre Dame Sta­dium holds just shy of 81,000 peo­ple.

Navy are a smaller unit, their Mid­ship­men rep­re­sent­ing the US Naval Academy at An­napo­lis, Mary­land. Al­though they were once a rea­son­ably sized force in col­lege football – even win­ning a na­tional ti­tle in 1926 – they aren’t able to re­cruit the best football play­ers these days since naval col­lege isn’t ex­actly the most at­trac­tive op­tion for a promis­ing football player with dreams of NFL star­dom. Yet they have been im­prov­ing in re­cent years and have beaten Notre Dame in three of their last five meet­ings.

Play­ing the game in Dublin poses huge lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems. There will be more than 200 me­dia at the game, about 50 alone from CBS, which will be cov­er­ing the game live in the US. The Aviva Sta­dium has had its ca­pac­ity trimmed back due to the fact that in Amer­i­can Football, the play­ers, coaches, of­fi­cials and army of staff all stand up on the side­line, thus mak­ing the front rows of seats ob­so­lete. As a re­sult, the ca­pac­ity to­mor­row will be in or around 47,500.

It’s no pic­nic for the col­leges ei­ther. “I love ev­ery­thing about Ire­land,” says Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “But I am not a fan of play­ing football games in Ire­land.” It’s easy to see why. All the work and headaches that go into pre­par­ing a team for a new sea­son are dou­bled and tripled when you set about start­ing that sea­son over­seas. As Notre Dame’s ath­letic di­rec­tor Jack Swar­brick told the Ir­ish Cen­tral web­site last week, “It is in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. The lo­gis­tics of it are some­thing else. Not ev­ery 18-year-old has a pass­port. So you start with ba­sic things like that.”

The Navy re­cruits can rea­son­ably be expected to have pass­ports at least. Their coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo has been in the job since 2007 and has im­proved their for­tunes sig­nif­i­cantly. Long seen as whip­ping boys by other teams – Notre Dame es­pe­cially – Navy have turned it around some­what and recorded win­ning sea­sons dur­ing each of Ni­u­mat­alolo’s first four sea­sons. Last year was a step back – Navy lost seven of their 12 games.

“The grind of this job, it’s a de­mand­ing job and there’s a lot of stress in­volved. It’s a re­sults-driven job, I un­der­stand that. I’m com­pen­sated very well. Be­sides that, I’m a com­peti­tor, I want to win. I hated last year.”

On a purely sport­ing level, it’s dif­fi­cult to see this year be­gin­ning much bet­ter for Ni­u­mat­alolo and his play­ers. Al­though Notre Dame are com­ing to Dublin with an un­tried quar­ter-back in Everett Gol­son, they have the much deeper squad and have much higher aims for the sea­son. The sched­ule has not been kind, pit­ting Kelly’s team against five of the top 20 teams in the coun­try, so it’s vi­tal to them that they be­gin by putting Navy to the sword. Against a team that looks to have made lit­tle progress with the kick­ing prob­lems that dogged its cam­paign last year, Notre Dame are com­fort­able favourites for the game.

What­ever hap­pens, it will be a glimpse of the fu­ture for the rest of us. A chance to get in on the ground floor as the ca­reers of the next gen­er­a­tion of NFL play­ers take their first steps. Not bad for 40 quid, if you got the chance to pay it.

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