On the first Saturday in November 1996, John Anthony was in Dublin, Ireland for the Notre Dame-Marina football game, a rivalry that dates back to the 1920s. Anthony, a 1986 Notre Dame alum, was close to the Fighting Irish program. , after a few years ago he started a company, Anthony Travel, that handled all of Notre Dame’s travel needs. As such, Anthony spent many weekends on the road with the Fighting Irish, but he had never before attended a game in Ireland.

That experience nearly 26 years ago showed Anthony that college football could work in Ireland under the right circumstances, and it led him many years later to spread the idea that the country could host more games. Now, Anthony and his eponymous firm are fully invested in bringing the sport to Ireland.

On Saturday, Nebraska faces Northwestern
in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, the start of what Anthony hopes will become an annual tradition of teams opening their seasons in Dublin.

Right now, Anthony Travel has partnered with Irish hospitality and events company Corporate.ie to organize, manage and promote a college football game in Dublin this year and in each of the next four years. Next August, Notre Dame will play Navy again in Dublin, while the teams for the 2024, 2025 and 2026 games have not been announced. If everything goes well, companies want to keep it as long as possible.

Aer Lingus, Ireland’s leading airline, is serving as the title sponsor and is offering the teams free charter flights to and from Dublin, with Nebraska arriving on Tuesday and Northwestern scheduled to land on Wednesday.

Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, both tourism agencies, are also financial sponsors, as is Dublin City Council. These entities see the games as a way to bring people to Ireland for long periods, not just for the games, according to Anthony and Padraic O’Kane, chief executive of Corporate.ie.

About 13,000 people from the US are expected to fly to Dublin for the game, including 10,000 Nebraska fans and 3,000 Northwestern fans. Organizers estimate the total attendance will be around 36,000 at the 49,000-seat Aviva Stadium.

A large number of fans coming from the US booked their trips through Anthony Travel, which is now a subsidiary of On Location, Endeavor Group Holdings, Inc. of sports and music tickets and the hospitality branch.

John Anthony noted that the eight-day, three-city package was the biggest seller, followed by a six-day, two-city package.

“Most people don’t just go to Dublin for a few days and come back and back,” Anthony said. “That’s the driver of this. That’s why Ireland embraces it so much. Ireland, more than any other country I’ve been to, they embrace the relationship with the US and talk about how important it is to them as a country and as an economy and everything.”

The first college football game in Ireland occurred in 1988 when Boston College defeated Army in the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin. Since then, the country has hosted several more games, the last one 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 that to make the model work consistently, they needed the support of sponsors, travel agencies and the government.

O’Kane, head of Corporate.ie, pointed out that Ireland does not have the infrastructure or space to compete for an Olympics, World Cup or other major international events. But he added that the city of Dublin and financial sponsors realized that American sports fans would be drawn to follow their college football teams in Ireland and tens of millions of Americans are of Irish descent.

“We see this as a big 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 only so much we can take (when it comes to events). This really works for us because if Ireland is on your bucket list and Europe is on your vacation bucket list, college football works. People come in for a week, come for 10 days, they travel all over the country and get it all. There aren’t many events like this that can give an Irish economy that is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, there aren’t many events that you pay for and have value for us.”

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 next year’s case, Navy) receiving enough money to make up for a missed stadium game theirs at home. US

As such, Anthony Travel and Corporate.ie target local teams that do not have a large home stadium in the US and are more affordable than the more popular sports programs. Nebraska and Notre Dame, for example, are the visiting teams in the Irish games this year and next, so they won’t have to have one less home game in their usual packed stadiums.

“There’s an affordability factor here with it,” O’Kane said. “We do have two good football teams, but from a financial point of view, we look at the 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 in 2020 with a Notre Dame-Marina game and continue last year with a Nebraska-Illinois game. But both matches were canceled due to Covid-19. They were able to reschedule the Notre Dame-Navy game for next year because Navy was hosting Notre Dame anyway and was willing to do it in Ireland. But Nebraska didn’t want to give up a scheduled home game with Illinois this year because the amount of money offered in Ireland wouldn’t have made up for the loss of a game in its 90,000-seat Memorial Stadium.

Anthony said Northwestern was eager to step in and move the scheduled home game against Nebraska to Ireland this year, especially because many at the school and 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 last year gave Northwestern $480 million, the largest gift in school history.

“Northwestern said early on that they were very interested in doing this,” Anthony said. “They think it makes a lot of sense for them as a University.”

Meanwhile, Nebraska is enthusiastic about going to Ireland as well. Bob Burton, the school’s executive associate director of athletics, 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. just to see what he would do. bring the 2021 Illinois game to the country.

Burton visited Dublin again this summer along with the team nutritionist, director of football operations, two representatives from the alumni association and other people who visited the hotel, stadium and other venues.

During a normal regular season away game, Nebraska flies out on Friday afternoon and returns home shortly after the game ends on Saturday. For a bowl game, the team arrives a few days before the game, but administrators already have a plan they follow and are familiar with those settings. But traveling to a foreign country meant extra planning and a longer stay, as the team arrived on Tuesday and will leave after Saturday’s game.

“We worked every day with the logistics of how this was going to flow,” Burton said. “It’s more intense (than a regular season or bowl game).”

It’s not strictly a soccer-only trip, though. The team plans to visit historic sites in Dublin such as Kilmainham Gaol, a former prison built in 1796, and Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century.

“I think it’s going to 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 Ireland-US CEO Club lunch on Friday afternoon at the Mansion House in Dublin for around 420 executives from the US, Ireland and Europe. Gwynne Shotwell, a Northwestern graduate and president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, will serve as the keynote speaker.

“We love him at every level,” Anthony said of the College Football Classic. “We love him for philosophically what he does because there’s nothing better for a student-athlete to have an experience like that to tell their grandkids about. We love it for universities because we’ve seen how impactful it is when all the fans get together there. And business-wise, it works for us too or we wouldn’t be able to keep doing it.”

Ireland isn’t the only country outside the US to host college football games. Australia last hosted the game in 2017 when Stanford defeated Rice, while Japan hosted several games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anthony said he has reached out to other countries about hosting the games, though nothing has come to fruition.

“We’re interested, but (countries) haven’t come up with the right formula yet,” Anthony said. “This needs a lot of support. Schools can’t afford to lose money playing overseas, so we have to be able to make up for what they’re missing by playing at home. This is not an easy needle to thread.”

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