To bid or not to bid?

Why does Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup boast such a high public approval rating, and does the bid deserve such unanimous backing?

Having seen seen such divides in opinion in our nation’s broadsheets, it would probably surprise many that 90% of the Irish public support the government’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023, according to a recent poll conducted by the Claire Byrne Show and Amarach Research. Considering how little we all seem to agree on nowadays, seeing such a unanimous verdict is quite surprising. This is despite the fact the government has agreed to underwrite the €328 million cost to host the tournament, the only bid of the three competing to do so.

For the purpose of clarity, this €328 million is not a straight up payment. The figure does involve a €128 million hosting fee, but it also incorporates a €200 million “guarantee” that the entire cost of staging the tournament will be paid for by the government in any event. Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, reassured that the likelihood of this guarantee ever being needed is very small, as all other Rugby World Cups in the past have made money. Whilst logical, the claim does seem somewhat overly simplistic. As Pat Leahy in the Irish Times points out, if the chances of the tournament making a loss is so remote, then why the need for such a sweeping guarantee in the first place? Why is it that the other competing countries have not offered up such guarantees if they are so risk-free? In any event, the Irish public seems unperturbed by the offer and also seem to fully back the proposal.

It is perhaps easy to see why. In terms of pure spectacle, hosting such a massive event is the stuff of dreams for a country with such deep sporting passions. The idea of having a month of top class sport happen right on our doorstep is enough for even the most hardened among us to get giddy about, even aside from the carnival atmosphere that is bound to develop with such an influx of different people and cultures. Truly this would be an event the likes of which this country has never seen.

Alongside such romantic visions is the many potential economic benefits such a tournament could bring.  

An estimate by Fáilte Ireland puts the potential worth of the tournament to the Irish economy at €1.5 billion. This is calculated by considering many aspects of hosting the tournament, including ticket revenue, spending by visitors, and job creation among many other factors. The fact that the bid incorporates stadia across the country affords the opportunity for these economic benefits to spread to badly neglected rural areas. Further advertisement of Ireland as both a tourist and business destination are also frequently cited as reasons that the event can create a positive economic legacy.

Looking outside the world of facts and figures, the sporting and social opportunities could be endless. On one hand, the IRFU would have the opportunity to expand the game of rugby into untapped spheres; both geographic and socio-economic. In terms of deepening talent pools the benefits are obvious, but perhaps more importantly, it would present rugby with an opportunity to shake it’s toxic image as a game played for the elite, by the elite.

IRFU outreach programmes in the build-up, as well as the tournament itself, could help break down hostile historical and social preconceptions held about the game in our wider social consciousness. Capitalising on this new appetite for the sport, post-tournament economic gains could be invested into establishing new clubs or schools teams in areas outside traditional rugby strongholds. Bringing rugby to new social groupings presents an opportunity for people to mingle and interact with a wider variety of backgrounds. These interactions help break down barriers and foster appreciation of other people’s perspectives, a rarity in a world with a new-found fondness for putting up walls and shutting down discussion. The potential of this tournament is endless, and that’s without even mentioning the political and cultural significance of the GAA’s involvement and support.

That being said, there remains a problem and it lies in that 90% approval figure. With the austerity inflicted on the general population in the past number of years, it would be very difficult to imagine any sort of potential €338 million outlay in that document reaching anywhere near 90% approval. Questions would be asked, alternative spending options would be raised. This sort of public scrutiny is a vital part of our democratic process and seems strangely absent from this debate, enabling all manner of claims being made without substantial challenge.

Ireland’s potential hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup is being hailed as a “guaranteed economic success” by its organisers on the bid’s website. The arrogance in this assertion is perturbing, and the seeming acquiescence of the wider public to this point of view even more so. It’s been ten years since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and yet already it’s easy to see a reemergence of the “don’t rock the boat” mentality. Lest we forget, this was a period where dissenting economists were told to consider suicide by our own Taoiseach, for the mere crime of questioning our economic course. Their ultimately vindicated concerns were all too easily brushed aside in our eagerness to ride the gravy train, to let the good times roll.

A full breakdown of the economic logic underpinning this bid is not publically available, leaving a whole host of unanswered questions. Given the fact our bid includes stadia in Donegal, Kilkenny and Castlebar; would our struggling rural infrastructures be up to the task? Are the potential tourism figures realistic? As Declan Jordan points out in the Irish Examiner, an international tournament’s effects on tourism can be overstated in both short term and long term respects. The prospect of large crowds has the potential to put off regular tourists wishing to go on holiday during when the tournament is being held, as was seen in London’s 5% decrease in their international tourist numbers during the 2012 Olympics. This could put the net tourism projections into some doubt. In the long term, it could be argued that Ireland as both a tourist and business destination has already been promoted and advertised to the point of PR saturation. A meaningful increase in tourism is, therefore, probably unlikely. Perhaps even more questions could be raised if more information was made available.

Legislatively, the bill authorising the financial guarantee received under two hours of debate throughout the entire process. Admittedly, this was mostly down to an error made by the Attorney General who initially judged that such a guarantee would not need to be put before the Dáil. After realising her mistake, the bill then had to be rushed through to ensure the funding was authorised before the bid submission date. Even with that in mind, the fact it took a constitutional technicality for this to be debated at all is disturbing. It has also now been acknowledged that there was more time for debate than was initially let on, a point that was raised in the Dáil by Eamonn Ryan who was then promptly admonished for doing so.

Both the fact this proposal has not been properly debated or its finer details made publicly available should raise far more alarm bells than it has and says a lot about the public’s lack of attention.

All of this is not to say that this tournament, should we host it, will not be a success. In fact, most evidence points to the contrary. Questions do need to be answered, however, and perhaps more importantly the questions themselves need to be asked in the first place. We need to overcome this Celtic Tiger psyche of not wanting to be the ones to rain on the parade, to willfully ignore the possibility of danger signs in favour of focusing on the more attractive narrative. We need to make sure our hearts don’t rule our heads, that cold scrutiny is applied to the claims being made, and to the decision making processes being undertaken. We lost our opportunity to debate the merits of hosting the tournament, but we haven’t lost the opportunity to make sure the decisions being made from here on in are the best ones available.