It is, perhaps, the greatest absurdity of them all. The guts and dregs of the FAI's finances have been paraded for public consumption these past few days but one core fact has been overlooked. The estimated €60 million debt that will weigh the association down for the next 10 years, and far beyond if the experience of other sporting bodies are examined, is all for a stadium that the FAI will have no rights to whatsoever in 60 years time. The association's chief executive, John Delaney, has frequently compared the FAI's current debt to that of any homeowner with a mortgage but there surely can't be many Irish people out there who would be willing to stretch themselves financially for decades, only to find themselves with not so much as a brick to their name once all their commitments have been paid off.
The Sunday Tribune can reveal that when plans for the new Lansdowne Road were drawn up, it was agreed that the stadium would have a life span of 60 years, a common enough figure for a newly-built stadium. But what was unusual about the agreement was that on completion of that term, the IRFU would assume, or rather re-assume, ownership of the land, or at any point before that if the stadium was deemed unfit for purpose. Even if, and this might cause considerable embarrassment for the FAI in future years, it is decided that the stadium can safely be used for, say, a further 10 years after the 60–year lease has expired, the IRFU will become sole owners and the FAI will revert back to being tenants.
The more you look at all this from an IRFU point of view, the more it appears they have executed a financial masterstroke. Not underhanded by any stretch of the imagination, but undeniably cute. The total joint commitment from the IRFU and FAI for the new stadium, after Government funding, was €151 million. Had the IRFU decided to go it alone with the new Lansdowne Road, they would have been obliged to pay those construction costs all on their own, a move which would have stretched their finances to absolute breaking point. By a conservative estimate, the IRFU would have had to borrow perhaps 40 per cent of that total, something that would have put the successful running of the national team and the four provinces in serious jeopardy. So instead the IRFU boxed clever, flattered Delaney and the FAI into offering them co-ownership rather than tenancy and roped them into paying half the stadium's construction cost. But co-ownership will cost them nothing, absolutely nothing. Construction costs have been shared, running costs will be shared and after 60 years, the FAI won't have a seat to their name, while the IRFU will be in a position to consider building a new stadium on the land they own, backed by the money they will have banked from four batches of 10-year ticket sales, most of which will be pure profit.
Admittedly, there was some sense in Delaney's initial thinking on all this. If the FAI had been able to fund their commitment to the stadium through the Vantage Club scheme, and by extension not had to borrow from the banks, becoming co-owners for 60 years would have had some logic to it. With the money from the first batch of 10-year tickets paying for the FAI's initial stadium commitments, they would then have had four further rounds of 10-year tickets sales to boost their coffers. In a best case scenario, the FAI might have emerged from their 50-year co-ownership deal with €400 million in the bank, a sum that would have gone some way to perhaps building their own stadium in 2070. As it is, the entire issue of what kind of money they might have in the bank at that point is anybody's guess.
Vantage Club is where the FAI's financial world has fallen down around them. The scheme appeared botched from its very inception and not one clear and constructive way of fixing the mess has been offered ever since. We've had the jerseys for club scheme, the cash up-front discount, the discount on a second ticket if you've already bought another, but all any of these initiatives have done is screamed to the country that the FAI are in deep financial trouble. And if somebody in financial trouble is trying to sell you a good or service, the natural instinct of any consumer is to wait until the price hits rock bottom before buying.
A bit of honesty on the FAI's part might have helped matters because in all honesty, their backtracking and feeble excuse-making – particularly these past few days – stinks. They, and Delaney in particular, should hold their hands up. They should admit they messed up, that the price they were looking for 10-year tickets was too much. They should come clean on the figures and disclose that they sold only about a third of what they wanted to. They should tell the country, a country well used to hearing it at this stage, that they're in a spot of bother but that they're going to do their very best to get out of it. They should issue a rallying call to the Irish football public to not only go to the Aviva for an international to get behind their team, but also to help plug the gap in the association's finances so that resources like regional development officers can be maintained. But instead they pick silly fights with the media, argue over the minutiae of a few numbers here and there, bury their head and ignore the bigger ones, like the suffocating debt building around them.
The start of any rethink needs to include a serious look at the issue of selling tickets, something that should be one of the association's prime commercial functions. If you were a punter thinking about watching Giovanni Trapattoni's side at home in the near future, there is an array of options to choose from. If you opened your match programme from the Andorra game on Tuesday night, there was a leaflet extolling the virtues of a season ticket, costing €270 for seven games between now and June 2011. The programme also contained an advert for premium level corporate hospitality packages organised by the Marcus Evans group, Roy Keane's benefactor at Ipswich. During the match, the electronic pitch side hoarding also told of a €90 package for tickets for both the Russia and Norway games. There's all this and the Vantage Club scheme to decide between. It's some choice.
In reality, though, the thinking has become so muddled it's actually putting people off going to matches. And that's before we even get to price. Across the water, the Welsh FA put together a ticket package for their four home Euro 2012 qualifiers over the next 14 months, which includes an encounter against England in Cardiff. The total cost of a seat for all four matches is £90. The FAI would probably expect you to pay £90 for the England ticket alone.
It's time to have a big think about things, chaps. Because right now, the numbers ain't adding up.