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
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.