On the first Saturday in November in 1996, John Anthony was in Dublin, Ireland for the Notre Dame-Navy football game, a rivalry dating back to the 1920s. Anthony, a 1986 Notre Dame alum, was so close to the Fighting Irish program that he opened a company called Anthony Travel a few years ago, which handled all of Notre Dame’s travel needs. As such, Anthony spent several weekends on the road with the Fighting Irish, but he had never attended a game in Ireland before.
That experience some 26 years ago showed Anthony that college football could work in Ireland under the right conditions, and it sparked the idea that the country could host more games years later. Now, Anthony and his eponymous firm are fully invested in bringing the game to Ireland.
On Saturday, Nebraska faces Northwestern
For now, Anthony Travel has partnered with Irish hospitality and events company Corporate.ie to host, manage and promote college football games in Dublin this year and over the next four years. Next August, Notre Dame plays Navy again in Dublin, while teams for the 2024, 2025 and 2026 games have not been announced. If all goes well, companies want to keep it as long as possible.
Ireland’s major airline Aer Lingus is serving as the title sponsor and is offering the teams free charter flights to and from Dublin, arriving in Nebraska on Tuesday and scheduled to land in Northwestern on Wednesday.
Dublin City Council is also a financial sponsor, as are Felt Ireland and Tourism Ireland, both tourism agencies. Those organizations see the games as a way to bring people to Ireland for an extended period, not just for the games, according to Anthony and Padraic O’Kane, chief executive of Corporate.ie.
An estimated 13,000 people from the U.S. are expected to fly to Dublin for the game, including 10,000 Nebraska fans and 3,000 Northwestern fans. The organizers estimate that there will be around 36,000 spectators at the 49,000-seat Aviva Stadium.
A large number of fans from the US booked their travel through Anthony Travel, now On Location, an affiliate of Endeavor Group Holdings, Inc.’s sports and music ticketing and hospitality subsidiary.
John Anthony noted that the eight-day, three-city package was the biggest seller, followed by the six-day, two-city package.
“Most people just go to Dublin for a few days and come back,” Anthony said. “It’s the driver. That’s why Ireland has embraced it so much. Ireland, more than any other country I’ve been to, they embrace the relationship with America and talk about how important it is to them as a country and as an economy and everything else. “
The first college football game in Ireland was in 1988 when Boston College defeated Army in the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin. Since then, the country has hosted many more games, the last being in 2016 when Georgia Tech defeated Boston College.
Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie worked together on that game six years ago, but they realized they needed support from sponsors, tourism agencies and government to make the model work consistently.
O’Kane, head of Corporate.ie, said Ireland did not have the infrastructure or space to bid for the Olympics, World Cup or other major international events. But he added that Dublin city and financial sponsors realized that American sports fans would be attracted to Ireland to follow their college football teams and that millions of Americans have Irish ancestry.
“We see this as a major event,” O’Kane said. “Being able to host the college football season opener in Dublin once a year on an annual basis is really important to us.”
He added: “There’s a lot we can take (when it comes to events). This one really works for us because if Ireland is on your bucket list and Europe is on your bucket list for a vacation, college football works. People have a week. come for, come for 10 days, they travel across the country and take everyone in. There aren’t many events that can give an Irish economy that’s so dependent on agriculture and tourism, there aren’t many events. Pay and there’s a price for us.”
The teams involved in the game are compensated for the competition and their travel expenses are covered, with the home team (in this year’s case, Northwestern, and in next year’s case, Navy) receiving enough money to offset the loss of the game at their home stadium. US
As such, Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie target domestic teams that do not have a large home stadium in the United States and are more affordable than the sport’s most popular events. For example, Nebraska and Notre Dame are the away teams in the Irish games this year and next year, so they don’t have to play one less home game in their normally packed stadiums.
“There’s an affordability factor with it,” O’Kane said. “It’s getting two good football teams, but from a financial perspective, we look at smaller teams (to serve as home teams) that we can really afford.”
The five-year deal between Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie was scheduled to begin with the Notre Dame-Navy game in 2020 and continue with the Nebraska-Illinois game last year. But due to covid-19, both games have been cancelled. They were able to reschedule the Notre Dame-Navy game the following year because Navy was hosting Notre Dame anyway and was willing to do so in Ireland. But Nebraska didn’t want to give up a home game against Illinois this year because the money offered in Ireland didn’t make up for losing a game at its 90,000-seat Memorial Stadium.
Anthony said Northwestern was eager to move its scheduled home game against Nebraska to Ireland this year, especially because the school and many in the Chicago-area have strong ties to Ireland. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s longtime coach, is Irish-American, as is the influential Ryan family, which gave Northwestern $480 million last year, the largest gift in school history.
“Northwestern quickly said they were very interested in doing it,” Anthony said. “They think it means a lot to them as a university.”
Nebraska, meanwhile, is excited to go to Ireland, as well. Bob Burton, the school’s executive associate athletics director, said he and several other Nebraska officials first flew to Ireland for a site visit in early 2020 before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, to see what would happen. In the country entail playing the 2021 Illinois Games.
Burton visited Dublin again this summer with the team’s nutritionist, director of football operations, two representatives of the alumni association and others visiting hotels, stadiums and other venues.
In a typical regular season away game, Nebraska flies out on Friday afternoon and returns home immediately after the game ends on Saturday. For a bowl game, the team arrives a few days before the game, but the administrators already have a plan they follow and are familiar with those settings. But the trip to a foreign country meant extra planning and a longer stay, as the team arrived on Tuesday and will be departing after Saturday’s game.
“We worked through the logistics of how this was going to flow, day by day,” Burton said. “It’s more intense (than the regular season or a bowl game).”
Still, this isn’t strictly a football-only trip. The team plans to visit historic Dublin sites such as Kilmainham Gaol, a former prison built in 1796, and Christ Church Cathedral, built in the 11th century.
“I think it will be a great cultural experience for the team members,” Burton said.
Anthony noted that there will be social events for fans throughout the week, including tailgates and pep rallies. And there will be an Irish-American CEO Club lunch on Friday afternoon at Dublin’s Mansion House for about 420 executives from the United States, Ireland and Europe. Gwynne Shotwell, a Northwestern graduate and president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, will serve as the keynote speaker.
“We love it on every level,” Anthony said of the College Football Classic. “We love it philosophically for what it does because there’s nothing better for a student-athlete to have an experience that they’re telling their grandkids. We love it for universities because we’ve seen that when all the fans come together there That’s how effective it is. And in a business sense, it also works for us otherwise we wouldn’t be able to continue it.”
Ireland isn’t the only country to host college football games outside the US. Australia last hosted the game in 2017 when Stanford beat Rice, while Japan hosted a few in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anthony said he has been in touch with other countries about hosting the Games, though nothing has come to fruition.
“We are interested, but (countries) haven’t come up with the right formula yet,” Anthony said. “It requires a lot of support. Schools can’t afford to lose money by playing overseas, so we’ve been able to replace what they’re missing by playing at home. It’s not an easy needle to thread.”