How businesses, Dublin city and tourism agencies have helped bring college football to Ireland
On the first Saturday in November 1996, John Anthony was in Dublin, Ireland for the Notre Dame-Navy football match, a rivalry that dates back to the 1920s. Anthony, a Notre Dame alumnus from 1986, was close to the Fighting Irish program , having started a company a few years earlier, Anthony Travel, which took care of all of Notre Dame’s travel needs. As such, Anthony has spent many weekends on the road with the Fighting Irish, but he had never attended a game in Ireland before.
That experience of nearly 26 years ago showed Anthony that college football could work in Ireland under the right circumstances, and it led him several years later to float the idea that the country could accommodate more matches. Today, Anthony and his namesake business are fully invested in bringing the sport to Ireland.
On Saturday, Nebraska takes on the Northwest
For now, Anthony Travel has partnered with Irish hospitality and events company Corporate.ie to organise, manage and promote a college football match in Dublin this year and in each of the next four years. Next August, Notre Dame will face Navy again in Dublin, while the squads for the 2024, 2025 and 2026 games have not been announced. If all goes well, companies want to keep it going for as long as possible.
Aer Lingus, Ireland’s main airline, is the title sponsor and provides the teams with free charter flights to and from Dublin, with Nebraska arriving on Tuesday and Northwestern due to land on Wednesday.
Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, two tourism agencies, are also financial sponsors, as is Dublin City Council. These entities see gaming as a way to bring people to Ireland for long periods of time, not just for gaming, according to Anthony and Padraic O’Kane, managing director of Corporate.ie.
An estimated 13,000 people from the United States are expected to travel to Dublin for the game, including 10,000 Nebraska fans and 3,000 North West fans. Organizers estimate total attendance will be around 36,000 at the 49,000-seat Aviva Stadium.
A large number of fans from the United States booked their trips through Anthony Travel, which is now a subsidiary of On Location, the sports and music ticketing and hospitality subsidiary of Endeavor Group Holdings, Inc.
John Anthony noted that the eight-day, three-city package was the top seller, followed by a six-day, two-city package.
“Most people don’t just go to Dublin for a few days, turn around and go again,” Anthony said. “That’s the driving force behind it all. That’s why Ireland embraces it so much. Ireland, more than any other country I’ve been to, they embrace the relationship with the United States and talk about how critically important it is to them as a country and as an economy and everything .
The first college football game in Ireland was in 1988 when Boston College beat Army in the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin. Since then, the country has hosted several more games, the last of which was in 2016 when Georgia Tech beat Boston College.
Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie also worked together on this game six years ago, but realized that for the model to work on an ongoing basis, they needed support from sponsors, travel agencies and government.
O’Kane, the head of Corporate.ie, noted that Ireland does not have the infrastructure or space to bid for an Olympics, World Cup or other major international event. But he added that the city of Dublin and financial sponsors realized that American sports fans would be drawn to following their college football teams in Ireland, and that tens of millions of Americans have ancestry. Irish.
“We see this as a major event,” O’Kane said. “Being able to host the college football season opener in Dublin once a year on an annual basis is really important to us.”
He added: “There’s not much we can take (when it comes to events). This one really works for us because if Ireland is on your bucket list and Europe is on your vacation bucket list, college football works. People come for a week, come for 10 days, they travel across the country and enjoy it all. There aren’t many events like that that can give an Irish economy that is hugely dependent on agriculture and tourism, there aren’t many events that pay off and have value for us.
Teams involved in the game are compensated for the competition and their travel expenses are covered, with the home team (in this year’s case, Northwestern, and next year, Navy) getting enough money to make up for a game lost in their home stadium in the US
As such, Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie target local teams that don’t have a huge stadium in the US and are more affordable than the sport’s most popular programs. Nebraska and Notre Dame, for example, are Ireland’s away teams this year and next, so they won’t have to have one less home game in their usual crowded stadiums.
“There’s an affordability factor here with that,” O’Kane said. “There are two good football teams, but from a financial point of view we are looking at small teams (to serve as home teams) that we can really afford.
The five-year deal between Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie was set to begin in 2020 with a Notre Dame-Navy game and continue last year with a Nebraska-Illinois game. But both games were canceled due to Covid-19. They were able to postpone the Notre Dame-Navy game to next year because the Navy was hosting Notre Dame anyway and was willing to do so in Ireland. But Nebraska wouldn’t give up a scheduled home game with Illinois this year because the amount of money offered in Ireland wouldn’t have made up for losing a game at its 90,000-seat Memorial Stadium.
Anthony said Northwestern was eager to step in and move its scheduled home game against Nebraska to Ireland this year, especially because so many at the school and in the Chicago area have strong ties to Ireland. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s longtime coach, is Irish-American, as is the influential Ryan family, which last year gave $480 million to Northwestern, the largest present in the history of the school.
“Northwestern said early on that they were very interested in doing this,” Anthony said. “They think it makes a lot of sense to them as a university.”
Nebraska, meanwhile, is also keen to travel to Ireland. Bob Burton, associate executive director of athletics at the school, said he and a few other Nebraska officials first traveled to Ireland for a site visit in early 2020 before the World Organization health declares Covid-19 a pandemic, just to see what that would do. involve playing the 2021 Illinois game in the country.
Burton visited Dublin again this summer with the team nutritionist, director of football operations, two alumni association representatives and others who visited the hotel, stadium and other venues .
In a normal regular season away game, Nebraska flies out on Friday afternoon and returns home immediately after the game ends on Saturday. For a boules game, the team arrives a few days before the match, but the administrators already have a plan to follow and know these parameters. But traveling to a foreign country meant extra planning and a longer stay, as the team arrived on Tuesday and departed after Saturday’s game.
“We worked, day in and day out, on the logistics of how this was going to play out,” Burton said. “It’s more intense (than a regular season or a bowling game).”
Still, it’s not strictly a football-only trip. The team plans to visit historic sites in Dublin such as Kilmainham Gaol, a former prison built in 1796, and Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century.
“I think it’s going to be a great cultural experience for the team members,” Burton said.
Anthony noted that there will be social events for fans throughout the week, including tailgates and pep rallies. And there will be a CEO Club Ireland-US luncheon on Friday afternoon at the Mansion House in Dublin for around 420 executives from the US, Ireland and Europe. Gwynne Shotwell, a Northwestern graduate and President and COO of SpaceX, will be the keynote speaker.
“We love him on every level,” Anthony said of the College Football Classic. “We love him for what he does philosophically because there’s nothing better for a student-athlete to have an experience like this that they’ll tell their grandkids about. We like it for colleges because we’ve seen how impactful it is when all the fans get together there. And from a business point of view, it also works for us, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to continue doing it.
Ireland is not the only country outside the United States to have hosted college football games. Australia last hosted the game in 2017 when Stanford beat Rice, while Japan hosted a few games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anthony said he reached out to other countries to host games, although nothing materialized.
“We’re interested, but (countries) haven’t quite found the right formula yet,” Anthony said. “He needs a lot of support. Schools can’t afford to lose money playing abroad, so we need to be able to replace what they’re missing playing at home. It’s not an easy needle to thread.