It’s been a long road back to relevance for Irish basketball, ahead of the FIBA Europe Cup next week Emmet Ryan speaks with Basketball Ireland chief executive Bernard O’Byrne about the sport’s resurrection in Ireland
When Bernard O’Byrne took over as chief executive of Basketball Ireland in 2011, the sport was in brutal shape on the island. The governing body was saddled with debt of €1.2 million, fielded no national teams, and was on the verge of receiving a five year ban from applying for sports capital grants based on passed missteps.
Come next June, Basketball Ireland expects to have the debt below €150,000. It now fields four national underage teams and is targeting a return to senior international competition in 2016.
“I was brought in to get us off our knees. The initial work had been done by a few people on a voluntary basis. What then needed to happen was to structure our commitments to bring down the debt within a specified time frame. We’re looking forward to the day where we can say that period in our history is gone. Then there will be a whole new set of issues but they will be better issues. It will be about how to spend the roughly €250,000 per year that will be freed up. There are plenty of calls on it so it won’t be near enough,” said O’Byrne.
The former FAI general secretary had served in roles with the CityWest hotel in Dublin and St Patrick’s Athletic football club along with working as a sports consultant before taking on the top job with Basketball Ireland.
“Once I got in, after six months, I had a clear picture of what needed to be done. As in all sports 90 to 95 per cent of the people I deal with are positive. It’s about working with them. I had no basketball pedigree so I was coming in fresh, there was no baggage and people had no reason to think I was favouring one side over another,” he said.
The next target is to get the capital grant suspension lifted so work can be conducted at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght.
“The capital suspension is for five years. It made sense to let that lie for a while. We have made that clear to the minister* [Michael Ring] and he has acknowledged that we have turned the boat substantially around. There has to be an element of some reward for what we have done collectively and I would be confident we can get some relief,” said O’Byrne.
Ring is the Irish junior minister for tourism and sport.
“The building was opened in 1994 and really nothing has been done to it since. The dressing rooms, toilet facilities, and offices need upgrades. We also want to put in a gym. The grant that was in place at the time was €500,000 and we are going to ask that we get that re-applied,” he said.
45,000 basketball players in Ireland
225 registered clubs
59 live games being streamed in the coming season
The summer saw gains for the sport on and off the court. After several years with no sponsors at national level, the governing body brought on two new backers.
“We’ve got momentum now on the sponsorship front. Subway has come in to sponsor the schools cups, which is a major event for us. Hula Hoops has come on board to sponsor the 10 national cups we have, which is a lovely fit in terms of branding. The deal was with Largo Foods and when we sat down with them there was one brand that suggested itself,” said O’Byrne.
On the court the men’s underage teams recorded improved performances at the European Under 16 and Under 18 championships from 2014 while a senior selection based on players in the national league, not technically a national team, beat Russia at a four-team tournament in China. It was the women’s teams that took the biggest strides. The Under 16s had the best ever performance by an Irish youth team in Europe while the women’s 3×3 team, a reduced form of the sport, reached the quarter finals at the European Games in Baku.
“I consider myself a champion of each sector of basketball, they all need to be pushed on. The 3×3 was identified as something that could help both the men and the women. The women stepped up in a much bigger way. They went to the European championships in 2014 and qualified for the European Games there. Then in Baku they reached the quarter-finals, it was a great achievement,” said O’Byrne.
“There’s the same pressure in FIBA [the global governing body] to bring on the women’s game as there is the men’s. We are ready and waiting for the opportunities to arise and take them,” he said.
“Our underage development is becoming stronger and there needs to be a template to allow those players to maximise on their potential.”
Despite the performances of the Irish youth sides, the teams remain mostly funded by parents of players. Basketball Ireland provides kits and covers some other ancillary costs but O’Byrne said the governing body needs to get in a position where it can provide full financial backing.
“It’s a magnificent sacrifice by the parents but as a national governing body, it is not an example for anybody. We have to have it that it’s the best players playing and no other criteria,” said O’Byrne.
“Our official policy is that we have cancelled our underage international teams. What happened was groups of parents came to us and sought permission to fund it. We haven’t said no but it is an area that is going to be under review shortly and have a frank discussion about the way forward.”
For all the success of the youth sides, O’Byrne said the return of the national senior teams has to be a priority for the sport. Ireland hasn’t field an official senior team since 2010.
“It’s fairly simple. The green vest, in any sport, is what works. We’ve seen it in men’s cricket, women’s rugby, and so many other sports. Any success you have in the green vest opens up other opportunities,” said O’Byrne.
“We have to get back there. We can only get back there when we have a sustainable plan. No-one is going to thank us if we had to exit after a year or two. When we come back, we will be coming back to stay,” he said.
“I’m clear in my own mind that we need to appoint a director of elite performance to guide us going forward. The only question for me at the moment is whether we can organise the funding to bring somebody in on a three or four year contract. We can involve FIBA, I’ve had good conversations with the president of the Finnish federation who have made massive strides. We need to examine the empirical evidence and follow a good example.”
An opportunity could present itself at the European Small Countries championships next summer but an Irish national side may be considered too strong for the competition which caters typically for the sport’s minnow.
“The funny thing is we may be seen as too good to enter. There is a bit of a block there, it isn’t one that can’t be overcome but it isn’t an open door yet,” said O’Byrne.
This October will mark a return of sorts for Ireland to European competition. An Irish league selection, going under the name Hibernia Basketball, will play in the FIBA Europe Cup. The second tier competition guarantees Basketball Ireland’s side six games, home and away with clubs from Czech Republic, Denmark, and Slovenia.
“We are not going in there for an heroic last place finish. It’s a great opportunity to build on what we did out in China,” said O’Byrne.
Basketball Ireland has received a grant from FIBA to offset some charges and has organised a fundraising golf classic in Abbeyleix to help bring up the shortfall with the men’s national league also contributing funds.
“It’s ambitious and it wasn’t entered into nonchantly. It is a positive step for Basketball Ireland, it’s positive for men’s senior basketball, and we can do this financially,” said O’Byrne.
“It’s going to be challenging to bring players together. The players are hugely enthused. It’s a logistical challenge but we will look after training expenses and make that side of it ok. I have a complete communications with the clubs as, ultimately, it will come down to their cooperation,” he said.
“I’ve already heard from clubs that participation will help them attract better import players from the US by offering the potential to play in the FIBA Europe Cup if they sign with a club in Ireland.”
Basketball Ireland has committed to streaming 59 games this year across all competitions and O’Byrne said strengthen the governing body’s partnership with TG4 was crucial to promoting the sport.
“We are delighted with deal we have with TG4. We are back on terrestrial TV and they are delighted with the viewing figures they have got on basketball,” said O’Byrne.
“We have talked to them about the FIBA Europe Cup. We are committed, by the rules of the competition, to have live streaming. With TG4, both of us need to be careful about that. We want maximum attendance in the arena at the games so we have to gauge that. If we were successful in the initial group stage and got into the second phase, then we would seriously consider it.”
O’Byrne said it was critical for those involved in Irish basketball to remain patient but he said he was confident of seeing significant progress over the next two years.
“On the business side I would like to see our sponsorship base grow over the next two years. We are certainly moving in that regard. If that momentum continues, that side will be transformed,” he said.
“On the playing side, I would like to see both the women’s and men’s national leagues achieve a greater profile on the Irish sporting landscape. The big thing, which I want to happen, is for us to be back at international level across the board. It will be a team of people that make that happen.”
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post and is reproduced with their permission