Tip for the Government: backing soccer with a bigger betting levy need not mean waging war on racing

Minister for Agriculture unintentionally makes good case for giving more money to sports not involving horses


The Government has spoken. No increase in the betting levy for football or any other sport with notions of turning themselves into an industry.

The bookmaker lobby will be delighted by the Government’s firm stance – both in the Dáil, for Taoiseach’s question time, and on the national airwaves, where the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue backed up Leo Varadkar by accusing the FAI and the Labour Party of trying to pit soccer against horse racing. Or is it football against greyhound racing?

Either way works for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This brings into question what precisely Micheál Martin meant in May 2021 when he said: “Governments have provided funding [to football] but I think we should up it a bit in terms of the league itself, the current funding. In relative terms, sporting expenditure isn’t huge, yet the value is enormous.”

This rare sports interview with a sitting Taoiseach, conducted by Off The Ball’s Joe Molloy, also elicited agreement from Martin that the Government could help League of Ireland clubs fund academies to the tune of €80,000 each.

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“I think we can,” the Fianna Fáil leader replied. “And if the FAI prioritises that we can step up to the plate on that [with] a sustained underpinning of the operation.” ‘So, hard cash?’ Molloy asked. “Yeah,” Martin replied.

Fast forward to this week and the same Government, under revolving leadership, adopted a dismissive view of an FAI-commissioned report that questions a continuance of the €1.5 billion in public money that has been ploughed into horse and greyhound racing this century.

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin noted that the “vast bulk” of this funding has been spent on prize money while the Republic of Ireland women’s team are preparing for a World Cup in “substandard facilities.”

Varadkar’s response to Ó Ríordáin seeking a review of the horse and greyhound racing fund made no mention of FAI chairman Roy Barrett’s suggestion that everyone can win, beside the bookmakers, if the betting levy is increased from 2 to 3 per cent.

Instead, the Taoiseach framed his answer as the FAI looking for horse cash (the FAI report sent to the Department of Sport noted that only 50 to 60 per cent of betting revenue is derived from racing, so other sports are “effectively subsidising” the industry).

“I would not pit sport against the equestrian industry in Ireland,” Varadkar replied. “We have increased funding dramatically for sport over the past couple of years and we will continue to do so. There was a time when the budget for sport in Ireland was something like €7 million. It is now around €150 million and we will continue to invest in sport.

“The equestrian industry in Ireland – horse sport, racing, stud farms and so on – employs tens of thousands of people.”

“It is worth about €1 billion a year,” said Varadkar. “If the Deputy wants to do it down, he can do them down but he should not try to pit it against sport. That is not fair.”

Of the 29,000 employed either directly or indirectly by the equestrian industry, 6,000 are categorised under ‘betting’.

“Taoiseach’s non-answer extremely disappointing,” tweeted Ó Ríordáin. “Absolutely appropriate to request a review into a fund that spends €100m a year, the majority of which goes to prize-money.”

In 2023 horse racing received €72.8 million in state money, part of which funded a portion of the €68.6 million in prize money.

Barrett was clear on this; the FAI wants to increase the levy on bookmakers, not defund horse racing, in order to create a soccer industry in Ireland, so young talent is not automatically exported to England.

Instead of entertaining this big swing by the FAI, the Minister for Agriculture doubled down on the “divisive” soccer-versus-horse racing narrative.

“The €72 million that is allocated this year to the horse racing industry compares to the €166 million that we have invested in sport,” McConalogue told Drivetime, “which was a record number.”

But that is all sport. “€25 million to soccer,” he clarified.

McConalogue makes the strongest case for increasing the betting levy to help create a soccer industry in Ireland by lauding how the horse racing industry “punches massively above its weight on the world stage”.

“Look at those countries we are competing with,” he added, “they all have similar levels of investment and in many cases much more levels of investment from government in those sectors.”

If the Minister was talking about football, he would be on the money.