Aviva deal reminds of sport’s ability to transcend recession

 
 

The €40 million sale of the naming rights of the newly redeveloped Lansdowne Road reminds us of sports interdependency of the economy, writes Fearghal Kerin.

The naming rights for the newly redeveloped Lansdowne Road have finally been agreed, with a deal having been negotiated with insurance giants Aviva Health. For the opportunity to have the new arena named Aviva Stadium, the company that replaced BUPA on the Irish market has forked out almost €40 million if reports are to be believed.

For those that pass what was formerly Lansdowne Road daily, it is a reminder of what once was in Celtic Tiger years. The cranes, the warning signs, scaffolding and hard hats hark back to only a couple of years ago when this was the norm all over Dublin and the country. Now it is an isolated phenomenon, a beacon for sport’s ability to exist outside the normal spheres of economic influence.

For the IRFU and the FAI, the former well renowned for their business acumen, the latter a punch line in jokes about profligacy and bumbling Irishmen, the deal marks a complete, if somewhat surprising success. Surprising – not in that John Delaney and the soccer bigwigs have failed to fumble a formality in their own inimitable fashion – but that the deal has completely bucked the trend of the current financial climate.

With businesses everywhere tightening their belts, cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, how then can Aviva justify forking out such a sum? And how can the country’s sporting bodies convince them to back them? The answer is largely unclear, seeing as one of the world’s largest insurance companies, AIG has survived the credit crunch on the back of controversial recapitalisation by the United States government.

The result of this was AIG’s termination of their contract as the primary sponsors of arguably sport’s most marketable brand, Manchester United. This begs the question, what does Paul McShane offer in marketing terms that Cristiano Ronaldo cannot?

Though the answer is unclear, with Aviva replacing BUPA on the Irish insurance scene, they must associate themselves with fitness and health, which is what sport represents after all.

“That the name Lansdowne Road is to be consigned to the history books is sad, though a reminder that sport ultimately submits to the same obligations to pay bills as all others”

Though Croke Park has been a resounding success as a replacement for all concerned, it is almost time for soccer and rugby to return home. A return was always inevitable, though it remains unclear whether Croke Park would become an option for the staging of events further down the line if deemed necessary for whatever reason.

Whether that would be the potential sharing of an event such as the European Championships, which Ireland unsuccessfully bid to host for 2004, or not is pure speculation, though whether the possible meeting of Leinster and Munster in the Heineken Semi-final gets the green light to be staged there would tell a lot about just how far the barriers to foreign sport at Croker have been demolished since the furore over Rule 42.

Something that annoys traditionalists, though obviously not to the extent of the often vitriolic opposition to the opening of Croke Park, is the renaming of what was a historic old stadium. Similar plans had been afoot for a renaming of Munster’s Thomond Park, though these never came to fruition, largely due to the atmosphere and recognition that comes with the name Thomond, and the fear fans had about what a renaming would mean for a stadium that was already going through a complete facelift.

That the name Lansdowne Road is to be consigned to the history books is sad, though a reminder that sport ultimately submits to the same obligations to pay bills as all others. Whether the redevelopment would have started if it had been planned for the current period of financial meldtown is moot, though the Government’s support of the stadium despite their own fiscal issues stems from the need for sport in a society in turmoil.

While national sport may prosper despite times of recession, at a grassroots level there have been varying consequences of the economic climate. Many League of Ireland soccer clubs have fallen into financial woe, as a result of profligate spending and decreased income. What’s more, crowds at matches have been hindered by the public’s inability to afford match tickets. €50 tickets to see Ireland take on Georgia in Croke Park recently were given the thumbs down, judging by the thousands of empty seats spread across the Jones’ Road Stadium.

Meanwhile, the behaviour of Aviva in splashing the cash is very much the exception to the rule. Sponsors are now harder to find than before as companies simply cannot afford to set aside unnecessary expenditures.

While people may find it harder to offer financial assistance to sport, however, the flip side is that people look for a distraction from what may be the woes of their employment. It has long been established, for instance, that crises breed skilful footballers, with the conveyor belt of talent from poorer areas of South America an indication of this.

Those at the top of the sporting associations will need to be vigilant over the coming years, and like what the FAI and IRFU have achieved with the Aviva deal, continue to confound social expectation.

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