SBJ/August 13-19, 2012/Colleges

Return of Navy-Notre Dame game to Ireland promises to be more successful than last trip

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Close to 35,000 tickets have been sold by Navy and Notre Dame for their Sept. 1 college football opener in Dublin, Ireland, and the Irish tourism authority says the influx of fans traveling to the country for the game will be the largest ever for a single-day sporting event.

The game — billed as the Emerald Isle Classic presented by The Gathering Ireland — will cap three years of planning by the Naval Academy, which, as the home team for the game, took the lead on making arrangements to play in Aviva Stadium.

A full house is expected when the teams meet at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sept. 1.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
CBS will broadcast the game in the United States, while ESPN America has sublicensed the game and will distribute the CBS feed to 20 million households in Europe. The Armed Forces Network will carry the TV and radio broadcast to military bases and ships around the world.

It’s not unusual for ESPN America to carry regular-season and Bowl Championship Series games internationally, but the combination of TV in the U.S. and Europe along with the international broadcasts will make the game between the Midshipmen and the Fighting Irish one of the most widely distributed regular-season games ever.

“This game is always a great opportunity for us to spread the word about our armed services,” said Jon Starrett, Navy’s senior associate athletic director for corporate sales. “We’ve had amazing cooperation from a lot of sources, including the government in Ireland, to make this even happen.”

Starrett sold the game’s presenting sponsorship to The Gathering Ireland, a campaign launched by Tourism Ireland to bring people of Irish descent back to their home country for a visit. The deal, struck earlier this summer, provides a direct revenue stream back to Navy athletics. Navy, which hopes to break even financially on the trip, had the sponsorship rights to sell because it’s Navy’s home game.

“It can be tricky with a one-off game with such unique circumstances, but in The Gathering, we found the perfect fit,” Starrett said. “When we saw how eager and helpful the Irish government was to help with the game, we targeted the tourism arm early on.”

Navy and Notre Dame have been playing football annually since 1927, making it college football’s longest-running nonconference series. Every other year, Navy is the home team, and the academy has made it a routine to play the game at a neutral site that will draw larger crowds and increased exposure for both schools. The 2010 game was played before 75,614 fans at MetLife Stadium, then called New Meadowlands Stadium.

The two teams played in Ireland in 1996 before a crowd of 38,651 in Croke Park, which holds more than 80,000. A half-empty stadium didn’t generate much enthusiasm for a return engagement over the years.

Tourism Ireland estimated that 10,000 fans came to Ireland for the game in 1996, but with 35,000 planning to visit this time, the day after the game is expected to be the busiest day Dublin Airport has ever had.

The idea of reviving the Emerald Isle Classic came up in 2009 during talks between Navy and Notre Dame administrators to extend their series.

Navy, as the home team, cleared the idea through its broadcast partner, CBS, and began reaching out to contacts in the NFL and the U.S. Embassy office in Ireland. Pittsburgh Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney is the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and his office was helpful in providing Navy’s administrators with the sporting landscape in Ireland.

Starrett said the NFL assisted, as well, turning Navy on to public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, which has a large office in Dublin. Fleishman-Hillard formerly worked with the league on NFL Europe.

“They gave us boots on the ground in Dublin, and they’ve really helped us build excitement for the game,” Starrett said.

After what Starrett said was one of seven or eight site visits to Dublin, Navy chose the new Aviva Stadium — opened in 2010 and designed by Populous — because the capacity of 50,000 seemed to be the proper fit for the game. Turns out that Navy and Notre Dame could have sold many more tickets.

Premium-seating sales began a year ago, with the two schools splitting that effort. All 36 suites, representing several thousand ticket holders, were gone in three months. About 15,000 single-game tickets went on sale through Ticketmaster in March, and all of those seats were sold in two hours. The ticket offices at Navy and Notre Dame sold the rest, about 33,000 tickets.

Aviva Stadium normally hosts soccer and rugby matches, which don’t require much sideline space. Football, however, demands more room for all of the people on the sideline, and that took away about 1,000 seats.

“The big challenge to this is selling tickets,” Starrett said. “There was trouble with that in the past, but we started with the premium seats last year and sold those out in three months. It’s gone very well.”

In 2014, Navy has home games against Notre Dame and Ohio State, and the academy is attempting to take those games on the road as well, Starrett said. The Ohio State game will be played in Baltimore, while the Meadowlands, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are candidates for the Notre Dame game.

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