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How sport can offer us a welcome relief and hope

The economic impact of this week’s Final Four basketball and other sporting events in Phoenix is a massive $1.5 billion

SOMETIMES it can be difficult to see the world through a positive lens. Sometimes one's natural inbuilt optimism gets tested to the limits by circumstances.

Right now in Northern Ireland we are on the dark side of the road. The 'reasons to be cheerful' column is running on empty with no immediate sign of a return of a devolved government and no reason to believe that if a deal is done, it will have a firm foundation.

Can it really be less than a year that we were told the economy was ‘at the heart' of the Programme for Government? Less than a year since the Fresh Start supposedly heralded the beginning of a new period of mature, shared politics? Sadly all of that is true and yet we now face the challenges of Brexit and the possible return of a hard economic border, with our politicians failing to represent our views and interests. It's actually a difficult position to take in, but it's where we are.

Sport is a very welcome diversion from harsh political realities and over the weekend, as well as coaching my own under-16 team I experienced both sides of life as an Antrim fan. On Saturday our hurlers fought their way to promotion in Newry, with a performance that brought smiles to fans young and old and instilled a hope that our footballers could avoid relegation on Sunday.

Sadly that was not to be, and in the seventh minute of injury time we conceded a point from a Longford free which turned a win into a draw and safety into relegation. I guess if we didn't care so much then it wouldn't really matter, but we do and it does.

Sport can also offer all of us a welcome relief and hope in the bigger picture. Among the multitude of tributes paid to the former deputy First Minister were a number from sporting associations of all codes, including from Ireland 2023, the official team bidding for Ireland to host the Rugby World Cup.

That bid was fully endorsed by Martin McGuinness and by the previous Executive alongside the Government in Dublin. The bid is a top class, quality effort and informed sport and Government sources suggest that Ireland's case has been very well made and is poised for success. Just imagine the scene in 2023 if Belfast is hosting Rugby World Cup games in Kingspan Ravenhill stadium and in a revamped, brand new Casement Park.

Sport can be an economic driver as well as forum for the promotion of health and wellbeing. In Phoenix, Arizona, city officials are leading the way in capitalising on sports tourism, and there is a lesson for us there. This week college basketball's ‘Final Four' comes to the university of Phoenix Stadium, it is a huge even in its own right and will bring thousands of visitors to the city.

However the Final Four is only the latest in a series of major sporting events which the city has hosted in just over a two period. They include American Football's Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and a College Football National Championship Game.

Factor in this week's Final Four event and the combined economic impact of hosting these events is a massive $1.5 billion. City authorities have spent millions of dollars attracting these games and the private sector has weighed in with an estimated $50 million in sponsorship and other investment and it has paid off.

Arizona now boasts the kind of sports infrastructure, reputation and climate that attracts over half of major league baseball teams to set up spring training camps every year, that's more economic spend and additional reputational enhancement. Now admittedly we can't compete with the Arizona weather but in Belfast we have a track record of hosting more modest sports events, like the World Police & Fire Games, which may be making a return visit, and what is now hopefully established as an annual US college ice hockey competition in the SSE Arena. That initiative is being built on already with the college basketball event last year.

We are moving up in the sports world and there are further opportunities on the horizon. Ireland hosts the Women's Rugby World Cup later this year with the final in Belfast; this summer the UEFA Ladies U19 championship is in Belfast and Northern Ireland is now a regular fixture in the world golf tour.

UEFA is moving away from single country locations for major finals and Dublin will host some games as part of Euro 2020. In time Belfast can do so as well, if we invest in our infrastructure and continue to expertly host the other sporting tournaments coming our way.

Each of these events provides an opportunity for Belfast and Northern Ireland to make a positive international impression. In Arizona they recognise the monetary benefits but also the exposure and branding that the Phoenix area receives from media mentions, and the positive images beamed across the globe.

The hospitality industry along with the City and State authorities have risen to the challenge of ensuring that everyone who comes for a sporting event, returns to spend more time on holiday, based on their experience, the welcome they receive and the quality of the facilities.

The brighter evenings have arrived, and for many of us spring and summer equals sports, whether watching, coaching or competing. In the absence of political leadership perhaps our sports stars, on and off the field, can raise all our spirits.


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