The absence of crowds means players must deliver the colour in window of opportunity
The League of Ireland is back, just not as we know it.
For all that Irish senior football is engaged in a neverending battle to win extra supporters, the live atmosphere is one of its main selling points. Muting that will result in a very different experience – for players and viewers.
Remember, it was the last summer division in Europe to construct a return-to-play plan because of a reliance on gate receipts.
This league will never become detached from its fanbase because it simply can’t afford to be. Disparaging comments about attendances don’t really take into account how the devotion of regulars keeps the show on the road.
That loyalty makes fans prone to a sensitivity which can be excused when they endure bizarre criticisms such as a recent piece from this parish which drew an unfavourable comparison with horse racing crowd averages.
This would only be valid if thousands of people who attended league games every year went for the corporate hospitality and entertainment – and didn’t see a football all day.
Our world class horses and jockeys often trot out in front of a few dozen paying spectators for midweek cards when there’s no festival feel.
Mind you, there’s something in that in the context of the questions posed by this restart. The vast majority of League of Ireland grounds aren’t easy on the eye. Spectators can actually paper over the cracks.
In certain cases, an upturn in 2019 and early 2020 attendances can be attributed to attempts to enhance the match-night experience. Clubs have copped that they are competing for customers who might have other things to do on a Friday night.
Bohemians have worked hard on the social experience at Dalymount Park, making it fashionable for younger clientele to attend.
Other clubs have targeted families, with parents glad to get kids out of the house and away from their screens. Advertising the league through the sights and sounds has been reasonably effective.
All of that is stripped away now.
Covid-19 is putting the league on trial in a public way, with the shifts in the sporting calendar creating a void through August and early September that doesn’t normally exist.
In all likelihood, the vast majority of the punters who pay for the WATCHLOI package, that makes all Premier Division fixtures available to subscribers across Friday, Saturday and Sunday, will know what to expect.
They are hooked in already, and it remains to be seen how many floaters will shell out €55 (or €69 if overseas). Live RTÉ matches – such as the Dundalk-St Patrick’s Athletic showdown this evening – will impact on the willingness to do so.
Closed doors tests the concentration levels at a time when large quantities of a TV audience spend the bulk of games scrolling through discussions about it, rather than taking it all in.
At Premier League level, the absence of atmosphere left it up to the players to provide compelling action that shortened the silences. This is going to be a challenge for any code that trades off the buzz of the crowd.
Put simply, the product has to be good enough to engage minds. There is a view that the League of Ireland standard has fallen since the last recession – in terms of strength and depth – with two-horse title races becoming the norm.
Yes, it’s hard to think of a better recent advertisement for the league than February’s five-goal thriller between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk which actually feels like a century ago now.
What’s ominous is that both sides took full points from all of their other games before the shutdown.
If the intimidation factor created by a crowd really does help underdogs, then the odds are going to be further stacked against them.
One-sided games involving dominant forces are a feature of all major leagues, of course, but the League of Ireland really does rely on trumping the strengths of the strongest links. Any casual fans tempted to buy into the WATCHLOI service will suddenly get to see a lot more of the weakest.
With high-stakes games at the bottom, the hope is that survival pressure draws the best out of the protagonists rather than having a stifling impact. Perhaps taking apprehensive fans out of the equation will allow capable young players to express themselves without fear.
It must be acknowledged that while concerns have been raised about the quality below the top two, the age profile has dropped considerably and there are creative talents at every Premier club.
This is the glass-half-full take on empty grounds. The flip side is that removing the energy of an impatient crowd results in stalemate that is hard to watch.
Those involved with running the league shouldn’t be afraid of this warts-and-all exposure. Improvement can only happen if the reality is embraced, so this bizarre three-month period can function as an audit of the entertainment value minus the volume.
With the stage clear, it’s a prolonged window to make the case that the league is worth watching.