Business Interview - Simon Heaslip
Following record attendance figures at Connacht Rugby’s recent Heineken Cup encounter with Toulouse, Connacht Professional Game Board (PGB) Member Simon Heaslip tells Lorraine O’Hanlon that Connacht’s success will have a positive impact on the local economy
Established late last year, the Connacht Professional Game Board (PGB) has responsibility for all activities associated with the running of the professional game in the province over the next three years.
Chaired by Elvery’s Jimmy Staunton, the board is aiming to build on the mantra “success not survival” and its remit is to provide a sustainable future for Connacht Rugby. Board members have been working towards improving facilities at the Sportsground, as well as bringing fringe talent to the stadium and boosting attendance figures.
One of the initiatives introduced by the board has seen sales of season tickets increase from around 350 last year to over 3,000 this year, which board member Simon Heaslip puts down to the public appreciating deals that offer good value in recessionary times.
The local publican says there has been a great response to the new season ticket package, which includes a supporter’s scarf, extra tickets and a free drink at every home game. “People appreciate that it is good value, [and] people want to support Connacht Rugby if at all possible,” he says.
Family tickets have also proved “very, very popular” with rugby fans. “Because I think it is very much a family sport…it’s a safe and healthy environment to bring people to and it’s an enjoyable day out,” he says.
Connacht Rugby’s popularity with families was clear to see at the team’s game against French giants Toulouse on 19 November, when over 9,000 fans filled the Sportsground.
The build up to the game saw supporters, including ‘Bridesmaids’ star Chris O’Dowd, upload pictures, videos and messages of support for the team. 100 of these images were then turned into posters and erected along the ‘Green Mile’ from Salthill to the Sportsground, an initiative that Simon says also proved very popular.
“The Heineken Cup for us is a catalyst for sustained growth over the next three years. It’s no good to us if people come for one match and don’t come back again.
“We saw the opportunity that the Heineken Cup gives us and we really wanted to try to reach out to people; it wasn’t the 9,000 people at the ground, it was the people around the province. And the ‘Green Mile’ was all about trying to get people to connect into that, to buy into it and to try and be a part of it.
“I think there is a huge opportunity to have a professional franchise in the West of Ireland and I think, where we are right now, rugby can fill that need,” he says.
He adds that the game against Toulouse provided a great boost for Galway City. “It was the sense of occasion as much as the match itself. We are a small little outpost on the West of Ireland; we don’t get to play games against the cream of Europe in meaningful competitions often. I think everyone bought into it and everyone enjoyed the day,” he says.
“Being a publican myself and having spoken to a lot of other publicans, even those who have little or no affinity to rugby, everyone got a spin off out of it,” he says.
Simon suggests that “taxi drivers are always a great barometer” of the success of an event, and he says that many drivers told him that the night of the Toulouse match “was like New Year’s Eve around town”.
Connacht’s next Heineken Cup battle takes place against Gloucester at the Sportsground at 1.30pm on Saturday 10 December, and Simon feels that the Gloucester game will have an even bigger impact on hotels, bars and other establishments in the city, with the English team taking up their full allocation of tickets for the event.
He adds that the PGB are only beginning their work to establish Connacht Rugby among other rugby greats. “We’re only starting, we feel there is an opportunity to leave a legacy,” he says.
And, while the board has already done a huge amount to improve facilities at the Sportsground with the support of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Government, Simon says there is more to be done.
“If we want long term sustainable success, we realise that success on the field needs to mirror that, so I suppose our next task is to strengthen the squad over the next couple of years,” he says.
“We want to be a fourth province in Irish rugby, we don’t want it to be three plus one. We want four equal provinces and if we’re going to get that and compete with them on a regular basis, we need a much stronger squad and that is going to take investment,” he says, adding that the board is hoping to develop Connacht Rugby with the support of fans and the Irish Diaspora.
“There is a huge amount of people out there with goodwill for the West of Ireland and we would hope to tap into it and give them something to shout and be proud about.”
Connacht’s next game is against Benetton Treviso in the RaboDirect PRO12 at 7.30pm at the Sportsground on Friday 2 December. For more on the team, see www.connachtrugby.ie or find Connacht Rugby on Facebook.