Saturday 19 October 2019

Daniel McDonnell: '€1.5m target shows road that league must travel'

Analysis

Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath clashes with Sam Bone of Waterford during the Lilywhites’ 1-0 league win last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath clashes with Sam Bone of Waterford during the Lilywhites’ 1-0 league win last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In a year of crisis for Irish football, a more transparent debate about the direction of the League of Ireland may prove to be one of the healthier consequences.

Representatives of clubs have been frustrated by a shortage of information on the sponsorship and running costs as they debated whether to break away from the FAI or work together for the longer term.

Now they are steadily beginning to receive details which raise challenging questions about the league's true value in its current guise.

€1.5m is a key figure in talks about the direction, with the Irish Independent learning that it's the ballpark amount that the FAI generates from the senior game.

Abbotstown officials have told working groups that the amount is basically cancelled out by running costs.

Close to two-thirds of the €1.5m income is collected from sponsorships, TV money, and data and digital rights; funds that essentially come from outside the game.

The exact breakdown is complicated by league business being grouped with international team rights.

Sponsorship generates north of €400,000 with the bulk of that figure coming from title sponsor Airtricity (sources say the league element of their deal comes in at around €250,000-€300,000), while EA are also key partners.

Similarly, the contract with main broadcast partner RTÉ also includes the rights for two senior international friendlies and women's international matches so clubs are now working off the belief that the value of the LOI element also comes in at around €250,000. Eir Sport pay a smaller six-figure sum for the rights to show games.

The remainder of the €1.5m coming into the FAI coffers is drawn from the clubs themselves in the form of the unpopular affiliation fees (which peaks at €19,000 per Premier Division club), payments for refereeing costs (thought to be around €300,000 per annum) and fine payments (averaging around €70,000).

Where have the FAI suggested they are spending €1.5m? Prize-money payments (€475,000) and match costs (circa €420,000) made up the lion's share in 2017.

Wages paid to employees offer scope for debate because a number of staff in Abbotstown have dual roles which expand beyond League of Ireland business. But the amounts are not enough to change the overall picture. A new third-party company would have to pay full-time staff.

Ultimately, it's the generation of additional sponsorship and media rights money that is essential for the league to escape from its current rut.

That is what Kieran Lucid, the tech entrepreneur driving the all-island league plan, is promising to do. His vision would culminate with clubs north and south forming a completely new enterprise.

Hybrid

Prior to his arrival on the scene, the preferred option was a hybrid model jointly owned by the clubs and the FAI. But the FAI's turbulence prompted clubs to speak about going it alone if Lucid didn't deliver.

It's now understood there are other possible players in the game with overseas agencies reaching out to the FAI to set up discussions about what they can offer. The next summit is planned for October 8 ahead of the Ireland v Ukraine senior women's international.

Representatives of all 20 clubs, and stakeholders including player, manager and referees, will be present.

It's also proposed that the hierarchy of the Kerry, Kildare, Cavan/Monaghan, Mayo and Carlow-Kilkenny sides that play in the national underage leagues will have a presence.

One idea is to raise the minimum Premier standards but reduce licensing expectations and costs in the First Division with a view to attracting fresh blood in untapped regions. An expanded second tier would require people to come forward and devise a first-team structure around the representative kids' teams.

There are individuals in Kerry keen on the idea, with ex-Cork City boss John Caulfield spoken of as a potential figurehead, but there is a long road to travel.

And that's all a subplot to the bigger picture, which is finding a way to inflate the key commercial contrasts and raise €1.5m under that heading alone, thus easing entry fee burdens on clubs.

Two European-based marketing professionals are engaged in the process. Tom Liston and Doug Thackrey have extensive experience on advising UEFA on the format and packaging of their competitions.

They worked with interim FAI chief Noel Mooney on UEFA's Grow programme which hones in on smaller leagues and associations around Europe.

Ambitious and conservative annual targets for income streams have been laid out with higher-end aims of €800,000 from broadcasting and €700,000 from sponsors.

Lucid's big sell initially was that he had a TV company willing to pay €1m-plus but clubs are seeking firm confirmation of where that stands. It was not a central part of his most recent presentation.

His concept has won respect, and there is a belief that larger sponsors and investors will be attracted to it. But the obstacles that remain, particularly north of the border, have forced southern parties to think about how the League of Ireland can look after itself. In many respects, a debate around the format of the league is secondary to sorting out the brand, presentation and deep-seated problems that have not been solved by years of tweaks.

But the consultants feel that a change in structure might make it easier to sell the product to buyers.

It is true that an eight-team Premier Division has been discussed, but the favoured option of the working group established between clubs and the FAI is believed to be a retention of the current 10-team Premier Division and 10-team First Division with an important twist.

That would involve a split into three different leagues at a cut-off point following two rounds of fixtures.

The top six in the Premier would compete in a champions section playing off for the big prizes, with the bottom four joining the leading quartet in the First Division in an eight-team competition ,where the top half would ensure their Premier status for the following year. The bottom six in the First Division would play off for a Plate.

At the top end, the retention of points after the opening 18 games is a talking point. It's possible that the points total would be halved to tighten the title race heading into the season's climax; a version of this system exists in Belgium.

This will be up for debate on October 8, along with the more substantive questions of who will be tasked to plot the way forward. The desire for decisions before the year's end seems optimistic with so much up in the air.

Sources say that club reps were "brought down to earth" when figures were finally presented to them.

That said, if the income/expenditure picture is close to break-even, then it would highlight how the league has been paying for itself rather than benefiting from investment from the top.

State funding is non-existent and Niall Quinn's Visionary Group did place welcome scrutiny on that even though his consortium have gone quiet.

The Government backing of infrastructural projects is now frozen due to the FAI's turmoil, another unwelcome product of a costly year. And tales of largesse or needless spending for other reasons have heightened frustrations.

There are now voices within the FAI that accept criticism and concede the league might be underperforming financially compared to what could be achieved with a clearer focus. It's time to find that out.

Irish Independent

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