One of the biggest sticks consistently used to beat the League of Ireland with is that of attendances, or rather the lack of them. Compared to the Premier League and even Championship, the numbers are meagre but when put into a different context, the situation is not so straight forward.
During our research for the Improving Football Governance project, we uncovered an interesting and unexpected stat that I have been repeating time and time again since – to whoever would listen!
According to a Uefa benchmarking report, nearly half (48%) of top-flight clubs have an average attendance of less than 3,000. Quite suddenly, perhaps the League of Ireland doesn’t figure as poorly after all.
There was an outcry recently when a late decision to televise the Cork City and Shelbourne match on a Thursday evening, moving it from an already-refixed date on a Saturday, left away fans out of pocket.
Having already made arrangements for the Saturday fixture, many simply couldn’t travel on the new date because of work commitments. As a result, the attendance on the night – as it was also a ‘school night’ for Cork City’s home crowd – was significantly reduced. It’s also worth mentioning that there is no longer any bonus money for having your game shown on television.
It goes without saying that attendances have everything to do with a team’s form. There have been some great crowds seen at Dundalk and St. Pat’s this year. Champions Sligo Rovers, on the other hand, have seen a dip in numbers – according to their manager – as a result of their failure to challenge for another League title and Cork City, too, have seen a decrease.
The situation in the First Division is even more worrying, and has been for some time. While over 2,000 people witnessed Athlone Town become champions, crowds are typically more a couple of hundred people rather than anywhere near a couple of thousand.
There was plenty of chat online on Social Media during Cork City’s trip to The Showgrounds a few weeks ago when one lone CCFC fan was snapped in the away stand.
He was later joined by three more hardy comrades but considering that Sligo is usually an overnight trip, arranging a Monday night game gave away supporters little or no chance of making the 10-hour round trip.
Keeping track of the fortunes of our senior team, it’s easy to understand that Irish football fans – generally – are not as likely to attend a live football game as opposed to watching a fixture on television or in a pub.
The FAI, like League clubs, are struggling to convince Irish sports fans that being there is what counts the most and until that point of view gains some ground, we will all continue to suffer when results dip.
I know club officials that shake their heads when they hear one of their home games is on TV. Television coverage almost always affects gates and with no financial compensation to make up the difference, it can be the difference in making wage and bill payments a struggle for that fortnight or not. It’s time to understand and concede that we are a nation of event junkies and that there’s no easy fix.
The alternative solution, of course, is to become less dependent on gate income. That’s easier said than done in the current economy though, especially given that decent crowds, in turn, always attract more interest in – and usually more lucrative – sponsorship deals. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say; just as it’s hard, if near impossible, to escape a spiraling whirlpool without significant intervention, change or simple hard-won luck.
And it’s there, within that downwards creep, that you’ll see the real fear. The ‘fear’ that any change or initiative might negatively impact or dent the existing crowds (that clubs fight hard to retain), so as to ensure the drive to do something different simply can’t be risked. The ‘fear’ that another bad season will be the tipping point, and perhaps the ultimate ‘fear’ that there will be no upsurge or Spring tide at all.
So… how can the League move forward? Like anything in life, it’s about taking a long, honest and critical look at where we are, focusing on what’s possible in the short and longer term, and putting both the findings (warts and all…) and plans out into the public domain so all efforts can be measured and improved upon.