SuperCupNI organisers have called for support to ensure the tournament's long-term survival after this year's event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing 'logistical obstacles'.
The world renowned youth football tournament, formerly called the Milk Cup, was due to kick off on Sunday, July 25 but now, for the second year in a row, has been called off.
Tournament chairman Victor Leonard said the news is a 'huge blow' to local tourism and hospitality, with the last edition of the tournament, held in 2019, having delivered £4.4 million to the Northern Irish economy.
“All of the three council areas where our matches take place are usually a hive of activity, with hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants and bars all reporting high footfall throughout the week of the tournament," he said.
“There is no doubt this will be a huge blow to the local tourism and hospitality sector.
“The tournament has for almost four decades delivered on sporting, tourism and commercial targets producing economic benefits for businesses such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, fast food outlets and the supply chains related to these businesses as well as retail outlets and other organisations such as first aid and event security providers.
“It’s now vital that we receive the necessary funding and logistical support from local authorities, government bodies and sponsors to ensure that the tournament is around for another forty years.”
The Chief Executive for Hospitality Ulster, Colin Neill, backed Leonard's view and said the tournament has been of 'vital importance' to local businesses.
“The STATSports SupercupNI is an integral part of our economy and the benefits created through the number of bed-nights and associated spend by thousands of visitors will be a significant loss to the hospitality sector as we move forward in our recovery process," he said.
“Obviously, the competition has been a key part of the Northern Irish sporting calendar for generations but it has also been part of the hospitality calendar for that same period of time. The benefit the competition has brought to our bars, restaurants and hotels has been vitally important.”
Leonard said that the decision to call off this year's event was a last resort.
“The organising committee has been working tirelessly since last August to bounce back from the disappointment of the cancellation of the 2020 event and return this year with a bigger and better tournament," he said.
"However, ongoing issues with regards to the impact of COVID-19 across the world and logistical obstacles outside of our control there was no other option but to cancel this year’s tournament.
“Over the last number of months, we have availed of support and guidance from the Public Health Agency and the Department for Communities before Committee made this decision.
“The media value in 2019 was £10.2 million, second only to the Open Championship in Portrush.
"The hard-working tournament social media team, led by Jim Sandford and Jason Andrews produced a campaign resulting in a media value of £8 million in July last year even though the tournament didn’t take place; this was a massive positive promotion for Council partners and Northern Ireland."
The tournament sees the pick of teenage players from each county in Northern Ireland take on clubs from around the globe such as Manchester United, with the likes of Ryan Giggs having previously played in the Milk Cup.
“Participating in the tournament is more than playing five football games over a week; it gives the young aspiring footballers the unique SupercupNI experience where young players can live, train and play together for a week, being in the same accommodation, providing a taste of what a professional football career might look like," continued Leonard.
“The tournament is an incredible experience for all of our young people and we felt that the restrictions, which needed to be put in place because of Covid, would adversely diminish the overall SupercupNI experience.”
The 2021 event was set to be the largest event in the history of the competition, comprising four male age groups at 14, 15, 16 and 18 years old and a new female section which had attracted teams from England, Scotland and the USA.
“The organising committee had secured high-profile teams across the four male age groups and there was considerable interest in the new female section which attracted a number of entries from prominent academy teams in the USA as well as big badge women’s teams from the UK," Leonard said.
“The games which were to be played in the Causeway Coast and Glens, the Mid and East Antrim and Antrim and Newtownabbey Council areas would have reached a worldwide audience and further enhanced the reputation of Northern Ireland as an ideal tourist destination.”
Planning has already commenced for the 2022 SupercupNI, which will start on Sunday, July 24 2022 with finals being played on Friday, July 29.