THE IRISH SPORTS Council has received considerable flak over the years.
The funding body is tasked with the responsibility of giving grants to the Irish athletes who are deemed to be most worthy of receiving this income.
Inevitably, given that there are limited funds available, the Sport Council’s selection of certain athletes over other similarly talented ones has tended to induce considerable disappointment and even anger among those who miss out.
Many people have long wished that there was a different means of providing income for dedicated athletes who, for one reason or another, receive negligible support, with their performance suffering as a result.
Now however, a new scheme, ‘Pledge Sports,’ established by a businessman by the name of Richard Pearson, aims to serve as an alternative to the Sports Council.
A crowdfunding platform that is using the success of similar initiatives in Australia and Canada as a template, Pledge Sports has already attracted the involvement of several high-profile athletes, including swimmer Barry Murphy, tennis player James Cluskey and 1,500m runner James Coghlan.
The overall aim of the project, according to Pearson, is to “help Irish athletes have a future in what they love doing”.
In addition, with over five billion dollars raised in crowdfunding last year and that figure expected to double in 2014, Pearson feels it is an initiative that’s worth attempting.
As an avid sports fan with a background in marketing, he is hopeful that it can make a difference for Irish athletes, many of whom struggle badly to fund their various endeavours.
“I was very aware of the problem, I saw a solution and thought — this makes perfect sense,” Pearson tells TheScore.ie.
“It’s not just about funding, it will give athletes a higher profile, which they’re getting — the Twitter followers of some of them are rocketing. So it will increase their fan base and fan interaction, which is an excellent platform to go out — whether it’s now or two years’ time — to commercial sponsors. And with more of a profile, they’ll get more sponsorship.
“Funding is a huge problem, so what we’re doing is bringing athletes, fans and commercial sponsors all together online, so fans and sponsors can join the athletes on their journey.”
And while there are obvious issues with the status quo, Pearson does not believe that the Sports Council should bear any responsibility for the current predicament that many Irish athletes currently find themselves in.
“They can’t fund everyone, it’s impossible,” he says. “But there’s a massive imbalance in how prize money is distributed.
“A lot of people think professional sports people must have great lives travelling the world, but it’s usually very far from that. All the money in sports is concentrated at the very top end. In Ireland, all the sponsorship money goes to the Irish rugby team, soccer team and the GAA. Around the world, it’s the very same. Big competitions get the big money and all the sponsorship goes to the very top people.”
The campaign relies on the support of both fans and commercial sponsors to give the athletes it promotes a better chance of success. But what do these groups get in return?
“Fans can contribute to their campaigns and be rewarded for their generosity in the form of being thanked via social media, signed merchandise, memorabilia, personal lessons and membership, and for commercial sponsorship, there’s publicity through social media, logo placements, photo calls and the general feel-good factor of helping up-and-coming athletes. Also, it gives them low-hassle high-impact sponsorship — you’re talking about really low cost for some top names.”
Where the money goes to specifically depends on the needs of the athlete in question, though travel expenses are invariably a big issue.
“One campaign that’s been very successful has been James Cluskey’s ‘Road to Wimbledon,’” Pearson explains. “Every Irish person wants to see an Irish player at Wimbledon — even if you’re not a big tennis fan, it’s exciting.
“So James’ campaign is to get him through training. He’s got a competition in Kazakhstan, which he needs to [raise money for] in the next two months and which costs a lot. Competing in it would be very good in terms of ranking points and if he gets through that, he’s got a very strong chance of making Wimbledon.”
And Pearson believes such funding will be integral to the success of any of the 10 respective athletes currently involved in the project.
“The other option is to get a job and maybe train for an hour in the evening. But if they do that, they’re not going to be winning the competitions. If you want to be the best in the world at what you do, you need to be putting in intense training every day. And already they do — these guys do clinics, they do personal lessons. They have to do that to survive and they’ll probably continue to do that even with this funding. It’s not going to cover their expenses by any means, but it’ll certainly help them.”
Pearson says that there has already been a “huge amount of interest” in the campaign, which has also received support from some eminent people.
“Our success is down to the fans and is really great for the athletes. We’ve had Ken Doherty, Shane Lowry and Katie Taylor all offer support, so it’s great to see some of the really big names realise that we’re all in this situation, let’s help these guys out.”
So with that in mind, if he could pick any athlete to come on board the project, who would it be?
“I honestly couldn’t answer that question, because when you work with these guys, a lot of it is pretty new. I’m not that well up in MMA or swimming — and I can’t understand why the sixth fastest man on the planet over 50 metres, the third fastest man in Europe, who’s probably one of the country’s top five athletes — Barry Murphy — is not getting any commercial sponsorship. We’ve also got Camilla Speirs, who’s a Kildare-based rider and an Olympian. And we’ve got Kevin Thornton — a young guy with a massive future — whose campaign is flying… I couldn’t pick one. You get emotionally attached when you work with these people every day.”
And finally, how big an impact does Pearson think the scheme could have on Irish sport potentially?
“This has been done very successfully in Canada and Australia. It’s not really been done before in Europe, though there is another crowd in Ireland doing it on a smaller scale. The difference with what I’m doing is that I want to bring online commercial sponsorship into it as well.
“In Canada, makeachamp.com has sent six athletes to the Winter Olympics. So if people get behind this, it could result in more Irish athletes sent to Rio and to World Championships.”
To find out more about Pledge Sports and give a donation to any of the athletes involved, click here.
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