Bernard O’Byrne was CEO of the FAI when English fans rioted at Lansdowne Road in 1995 and the eircom Park saga was a daily headache. Now Basketball Ireland’s boss, he talks crisis management with Brendan O’Brien as sport responds to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Q: Basketball Ireland was the first sport here in Ireland to call a halt to its proceedings once the virus became an issue. What was the moment you realised that this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

Also, a light-bulb moment for me was the Cheltenham Festival because I had been reading about everything up to that and there they were saying that 16,000 Irish people were going to Cheltenham and I was thinking ‘there is something odd here, people are not thinking straight’. That was really it for me.

Q: You have faced big challenges in the past in your days as CEO of the FAI and again with Basketball Ireland which was in desperate straits financially when you started in 2011. Have those experiences been a help in dealing with this?

A: I’ve been involved in a few crisis management moments over the years! You don’t realise you are learning this stuff, it just goes into you. One of the things is to stay calm, especially if you are in a leadership position. People don’t like seeing the leader holding their head in their hands and saying, ‘what are we going to do next?’ Or equally, just running to the worst-case scenario all the time.

So it is about staying calm, thinking clearly and seeking advice. Talk to other people and then give measured direction. That experience just feeds into you, as I say. Generally speaking, I think the board and senior management gave good leadership to the basketball community through this.”

The CEO Series: Bernard O'Byrne - 'What is the damage to communities if Basketball Ireland or another organisation implodes?'
CEO of Basketball Ireland Bernard O’Byrne. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Q: Given those experiences, are there any other commonalities in how you deal with these crises, regardless of the details?

A: Yes. Generally speaking as well, in terms of style of management, long dissertations on what should and shouldn’t happen are often ineffective. What counts are actions, example. When people see you taking an action that you are asking them to do, that counts a lot more than three or four pages of documents with instructions from on high.

You need to be at one with the community you are talking to. You need to understand their concerns. You don’t need to take on a mantle of, ‘I am going to solve this all on my own and it will be alright’. It has to be an inclusive thing where you can almost admit you’re not quite sure what you are doing at times but that you are going to do your best. Do it together and we can get through this. That resonates with people more.

Q: Where was the organisation at when Covid-19 struck?

A: We were on the cusp of a really good year. 2020 was going to be our 75th anniversary and, while that is only a number in itself and you can overstate it, we were going to use it as a vehicle to push on with a lot of the stuff we had done over the years.

So, for instance, we were going to host the European Senior Men’s Small Countries Championships down in UL. We were going to have a major 3 x 3 competition in Galway as part of the European Capital of Culture year and we had our Hall of Fame presentation in Croke Park for May.

All in all we had about ten events planned throughout the year that were going to be really positive for basketball and show that we are a vibrant sporting organisation. We wanted to get the message across that we are not also-rans in terms of the sporting landscape in Ireland, that basketball is a real presence in a lot of communities.

Q: You used the words ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘receivership’ when speaking on RTÉ a few weeks ago about the possible consequences of this crisis if financial aid isn’t forthcoming.

A: Our income is essentially the income we can generate from the [National Basketball] Arena, our registrations, our sponsorship and then government support. The sponsorships are kind of on hold and we all understand that with the difficulties that businesses are having. There hasn’t been any damage done yet but we still have to find out how things are going for the businesses we are involved with. Hopefully that will be all okay.

What has absolutely been pulled from under us is the income that we get through the Arena. As most people would know, it is not just a basketball arena, it caters for a lot of other sports and community events. Potentially, to the end of the year, we would look at losing income of €1.2m. On the other side of it, we will save expenditure possibly to the order of €7-800,000 but the net impact of €4-500,000 will be devastating for Basketball Ireland.

So we have to try and minimise that by whatever actions we can take but also by asking government for a resilience fund, not just for basketball but for sports in similar predicaments. While €4-500,000 might be nothing to some of the bigger organisations, it is a backbreaker for us.

Equally, €50,000 for smaller organisations could be a backbreaker for them. We need people to focus on that. We are also making this case to FIBA Europe as well, although there are 52 federations in Europe and you can’t really expect FIBA to give something to all of those.

The CEO Series: Bernard O'Byrne - 'What is the damage to communities if Basketball Ireland or another organisation implodes?'

Q: Aren’t there thousands of businesses in a similar boat in Ireland?

A: There are intelligent people in the Department of Sport and in Sport Ireland and they have to take a holistic look at it. It’s not just a question of giving money to sport, there is also the cost if you don’t give money to sport. If Basketball Ireland or another organisation implodes what is the damage to the communities? What is the damage to mental health? We would estimate that we have between a quarter of a million to 300,000 people involved in basketball on any given weekend. We need to do this to preserve society.

Q: What happens if a second wave of Covid-19 materialises and sport is among the sectors shut down again?

A: I was in on a FIBA meeting on Monday and that was the theme of it. The restart is difficult enough but one we can manage. But what happens if the second wave comes? We will be somewhat better prepared and the knowledge coming through is that being prepared, which we weren’t the first time, will help everyone. The health and safety of everybody will come first and if we have to close down then we will close down and if we don’t have basketball for six to nine months then so be it. Being prepared is the key. Hopefully a second wave wouldn’t be as bad.

Q: How complicated is a return for basketball given the close contact involved on the court and the very fact that it is an indoor sport in an era of social distancing?

A: They are the difficulties. We have told everybody that training can commence from July 20th. What might be difficult is the availability of facilities because a lot of that is beyond our control. Will schools be using their gymnasium for extra classrooms, which will basically make them unavailable to us? Will community centres be open and allow people in? We need to find out the situation as soon as possible in local communities.

We are also, as a group of indoor sports, talking to each other and we need to make sure that the [government’s] Return to Sport Expert Group appreciates – which I think they do but just need to hear it from us – that the concerns for us are quite different to those of outdoor sports. And they need to be taken on board.

Q: Finally, Darren and Neil Randolph spoke about their experiences of racism growing up in Ireland on the Basketball Ireland ‘Bench Talk’ podcast this week. What role can sports bodies play in countering this?

A: Sport in general is an intrinsic part of people’s lives. We saw the restart of the Premier League this week and it was very striking when the players took the knee. I would hope that everybody sincerely believes that but it was a very striking image.

Within basketball, there have been very few instances of racism through my tenure but I am sure it does go on. Often when it happens it may not be reported because people don’t want to make a big thing of it or just cope with it locally.

Three years ago we brought out an anti-racism policy. We have been looking at it the last couple of weeks, at setting up a group within Basketball Ireland that will proactively get the message out that basketball absolutely abhors racism of any kind and encourage communities to come into basketball as players, coaches and board members.

They shouldn’t feel that there are ever any doors closed to them in the basketball community.