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GAA accuses Department of Sport of making them 'look foolish' over American football game

A letter from Paraic Duffy to Minister Paschal Donohoe has emerged under a Freedom of Information request.

Paraic Duffy was very critical of the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport.
Paraic Duffy was very critical of the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport.
Image: Inpho

THE GAA WAS made to “look foolish” over an American football game due to be played in Dublin later this year.

The Association claims that they were refused Government funding to help them to host the upcoming college football match between Boston College and Georgia Tech.

They say at least €300,000 in public money was then provided to a rival bid which saw Croke Park lose out on the game to the Aviva Stadium.

Director General Paraic Duffy reacted angrily in a letter to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTTAS) and told Minister Paschal Donohoe that the Government’s approach had been “damaging to the reputation” of the GAA.

The Department denies any wrongdoing, and said that Duffy’s comments “were made in the light of incorrect information.”

Duffy’s letter, obtained by The42 under the Freedom of Information Act, was prompted by a meeting at Shelbourne Park “attended by a wide audience from various sporting bodies.”

There, an Assistant Secretary in DTTAS, Ray O’Leary, “stated unequivocally that €300,000 of public money has been allocated by DTTAS to the organisers of the Boston College v Georgia Tech college football game in Dublin.”

Duffy also requested “as a matter of urgency” an explanation as to why “cash and benefit-in-kind in the order of €650k” was given to Irish American Events Ltd. — the company hosting the game in the Aviva Stadium on 3 September — while “a national, non-profit organisation such as the GAA, which prides itself on redistributing over 80% of its annual revenues to its units, was refused the support.”

Duffy continued:

The approach taken by DTTAS has been damaging to the reputation of the GAA. We took you at your word that no public monies were available and we now look foolish in the face of massive Government subvention which facilitates the playing of this game at another venue.”

In a reply sent in February of this year — and prompted by a second letter from Duffy asking why he was yet to receive a full response — the Minster expressed his regret at the delay in replying and stated the funding did not amount to €650,000.

He said:

“I can assure you that the level of support being made available by the combined funding of a number of State bodies does not come near the figure of €650,000 cited in your letter.

“I can only assume that Mr. O’Leary has been misquoted or misunderstood.”

The Minister does go on to state the current combined contribution of Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Dublin City Council but the information is redacted as “discussions and negotiations are commercially sensitive as the game has not yet taken place.”

In a statement released to The42 on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department said Duffy’s comments “must be read in the context of the fact that they were made in the light of incorrect information regarding the level of support being provided to the event.”

They also said the Association was “not made to look foolish and the GAA’s excellent reputation remains so.”

A spokesperson for the GAA told The42 they would be making no further comment on the letter.

Cancellation

As first reported on The42 in December 2014, the GAA had an agreement in principle with Boston College and Georgia Tech to host a college American football game at Croke Park.

The game was due to to be the second such encounter following on from the success of Penn State’s game with the University of Central Florida — known as the Croke Park Classic — at the same venue in August of that year.

That game came to national attention because its scheduling resulted in the controversial decision to move the All-Ireland football semi-final replay between Mayo and Kerry to Limerick.

Stephen Kavanagh,Enda Kenny and Kevin O'Malley Enda Kenny at the launch of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic in June 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Taoiseach Enda Kenny had been due to confirm the 2016 event during his visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day 2015 and his failure to do so was the first sign the game was in trouble.

It emerged in April last year that the encounter would not take place at Croke Park with the GAA stating at the time:

The strength of the dollar against the euro means that the staging of the game at Croke Park was no longer viable for the Association without significant support from government agencies.”

The42 understands the shortfall involved was less than €500,000.

In May 2015, The42 learned that a private consortium — which turned out to be Irish American Events Ltd. — were attempting to stage the game in the Aviva, a move that was confirmed in June when the Taoiseach launched what is being billed as the Aer Lingus College Football Classic.

However, on 20 August 2014, more than six months before it emerged that the proposed Croke Park game could be in trouble, John Anthony — of Anthony Travel and a director of Irish American Events Ltd. — emailed Minister Donohoe stating that he had “an opportunity to secure another high profile college football game in the near future” and requested a meeting with the Minister.

Chris Goodwin with Jordan Ozerities, Terrance Plummer and Troy Gray The Croke Park Classic took place at HQ in August 2014. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

On 16 September 2015, Anthony emailed the Minister again to say it was “a great pleasure” to spend time with him at the Croke Park Classic and requested his immediate attention to help secure a “very attractive game for 2016.”

Details of that proposed game were refused under Freedom of Information as the “information was given in confidence.”

However, an internal DTTAS email on 19 November 2014, with the ‘Boston College’ subject line states that “both Aviva and Croke are pitching for this particular event.”

That email, between Ray O’Leary and Stephen Lynam, a Special Adviser to Minister Donohoe, also states the Department has “never provided financial support for any of the games so far.”

It continues:

“Tourism Ireland did buy advertising time, for The Gathering, for half-time in the Notre Dame/Navy game (held in the Aviva Stadium in 2012) — but no direct support. That did help secure it, as the advertising/sponsorship package is part of the overall deal for one of these games, but it was a purchase of valuable targeted advertising time.”

O’Leary goes on to say “we cannot really choose one over the other” when referring to the two proposed games.

‘A shell company’

However, Duffy’s letter, dated 22 October 2015, suggests the Department did choose one side after the GAA made one final appeal in March of that year for DTTAS support.

He says:

“You did consider our request but, ultimately, stated that you could not agree as you felt that such support would create a precedent.

“After much internal debate, the GAA decided on 23 April not to proceed with the game because of this lack of support and the resulting financial risk, and we informed Boston College accordingly.

It now appears that DTTAS has shown extraordinary flexibility in providing significant funds towards the staging of this game to Irish American Events Ltd,, a company with less that one year’s trading and, for all intents, a shell company established to promote the event.”

General view of the game The Aviva last held a college football game in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Rugby World Cup meeting

The letter also makes three references to the GAA’s support of Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid and reveals the organisation first proposed a game between Boston College and Georgia Tech in Croke Park at a meeting with Minister Donohoe in October 2014, two months after the Minster had received details of a proposal to host the same game at a different venue.

The meeting was held to discuss “the provision of GAA grounds in support of the IRFU 2023 Rugby World Cup bid.”

The letter states:

“In our discussions, you clearly separated support for the proposed Boston College v Georgia Tech game from the issue of the Rugby World Cup and, in a subsequent follow up with your Special Advisor, Mr. Stephen Lynam, this position was confirmed.”

(This email was not made available to The42 in the Freedom of Information release. When requested by the FOI officer in DTTAS, Mr. Lynam said he did not have a copy.)

“Mr. Lynam pointed out that Fáilte Ireland would be supportive and, in conversation with Fáilte Ireland, we were led to understand that their support would be in the order of (redacted).”

The final mention comes in the penultimate paragraph where Duffy states “the irony is that the GAA were refused support on the day they negotiated an agreement with DTTAS in support of the IRFU efforts to bring the 2023 Rugby World Cup to Ireland.”

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Steve O'Rourke

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