Wednesday 23 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Lucid Dreams, Ireland's €200m deficit and an ambitious plan to save Irish football


Bohemians take on Linfield in the 2010 Setanta Sports Cup. Will we see an All-Ireland league soon?
Bohemians take on Linfield in the 2010 Setanta Sports Cup. Will we see an All-Ireland league soon?
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

The drill is a familiar one, as if some tick-the-box horror movie script.

You know what's coming but slowly it still gets to you as you wait for the inevitable.

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The tension and fear builds. The music grows louder. There's suddenly silence.

And then a shrieking scream.

"Go on, get out of here. Save yourselves."

Approaching the League of Ireland can be terrifying, never mind when you shackle its even more debilitated brother, the NIFL Premiership, to it. The refreshing bit of this though is that Kieran Lucid thought the same, thus he decided to try and do something about it.

His vision isn't some rehashed effort like hooking up jump cables to a car battery and a rotting corpse.

This is about something new and exciting because we know what's been tried and tested has failed time and again.

If only enough will now buy into it.

PART ONE - THE MAN

From Ballyheigue on the north-west coast of Kerry, geographically Lucid couldn't have grown up much further from the the senior soccer scene. His life and then lifestyle couldn't have been further from the dreary and decrepit surrounds either as, only turned 36, his tale has been a raging success story. Deutsche Bank. Liquidnet. Bank of America. Four years on Wall Street. By 2016 he'd even sold his data research company in London for what reports say is close to €3m.

It begs the simple question. What is he doing back here trying to revolutionise this small and stale beer?

It all begins with a move to Belfast. A handful of years back he was learning that outside the gentrified centre, there remained the old and haunting divides, with more peace walls today than when the Good Friday Agreement kicked in. He himself had played for Tralee Dynamos in his youth and always kept a close eye on Manchester United, and that semblance of passion for soccer made him think about using it for real good.

So he founded the Boyne Cup.

It involved taking boys from both sides of the divide to Gormanston Park for a boarding weekend. There they played on teams mixed together from oft-confrontational backgrounds, with his sport the method of unity. "Rugby is obviously cross-community too and it does great things but it's still one demographic as it is in many countries. The way I saw it, football is all-encompassing and could do more."

That project is in its third year but it caused his interest in the game in Ireland to grow beyond integration.

A seed planted, it sprouted when he read an old quote in an article in the Belfast Telegraph.

Flicking through the paper, the words in the article were from Aubry Ralph, the former Glentoran chairman, and he was surprised that he was talking about the benefits of an all-Ireland league. "This was an east Belfast club and that seemed unusual to me," continues Lucid. "I was so curious that I got in touch with him and we spent a day together and he informed me about the reasons for this opinion, and why the clubs would go for it if it was pitched right. In his mind it had to focus on finances first and foremost, rather than other selling points dragged in from elsewhere. It was such an encouraging chat that I went home and said to myself, 'Jesus I should really give this a crack'."

Enough about the man though.

After all, he isn't here to pitch himself.

PART TWO - THE MISSION

Lucid wasn't even born when Louis Kilcoyne convinced his brother-in-law John Giles to come home and try and bring show-business to a mucky field in Glenmalure and then beyond. As it turned out, the sexiness of that was akin to putting lingerie on a pig. It was top-down thinking for one team, and not about the needs of building a sustainable brand from which all could profit in the longer term.

This is where Lucid's expertise came in and what he's been proposing is as radical as refreshing.

With one fascination being football, and with another being data, he started studying the empirical evidence around what was happening both north and south of the border in this sphere. "I began drilling into the fundamentals. Comparing population sizes, hinterlands, attendances and contrasting it with leagues of similar sizes like Denmark and Scotland. I knew it wasn't good but I was surprised."

"The macro picture was quite stark and concerning for everyone," he adds.

That got him chatting to Claus Thomsen, the head of the Danish Superliga, and a man that has since become an important acquaintance on this trip as he's helped the skeptical peer into the possible. A place with a population of a million less than our island, Thomsen told of their TV deal worth €50m and one that's likely to grow by an additional €10m. "It's an amazingly successful product," notes Lucid. "Scotland wouldn't have that TV deal but if you look at the 42 SPFL clubs, the last club gets about £45,000 in prize money, yet the winners in North get £40,000.

"Granted, what we did was try and quantify rugby and GAA and the impact they have here but I guess what stood out was when I tried to work back from our interest in British football. The Visit Britain survey in 2015, it said the Republic was biggest foreign sender of people to Premier League games. And that's just the Republic to England. Add in the North and trips to Scotland." When he crunched the numbers what he found was a football deficit, so to speak, of around €200m per annum, although Liverpool's success of late has seen that push towards €300m.

"So we love the game clearly," he says. "It's that we don't love our own and crowds reflect that."

So much of that seems set in stone though, particularly with the stigma attached to our leagues.

Thus it had to be revolution rather than evolution in his mind.

PART THREE - THE PLAN

For a while Kieran Lucid worked away by himself on this, but gradually others took notice.

There was Mark Duffy, a Mayo councilor and Ballina captain in 2018 who asked to come on board. Brian Kerr started offering regular advice. Brendan Dillon, the Dublin solicitor who was previously the chairman of the League of Ireland pitched in. As did Ciarán Medlar, a partner and tax specialist with accountancy firm BDO. More recently there's been Stafford Reynolds, a commercial director with Glentoran, Alex Horne who was general secretary of the FA in England, Oliver Weingarten who was a general counsel with the Premier League, and many more.

50kerr.jpg
Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr and tech entrepreneur Kieran Lucid been working behind the scenes for 18 months to sell their idea to clubs on both sides of the border. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

In essence, people who know what they are doing. They had to be as to pull this off they needed specifics rather than merely a flabby dream.

"We spoke with Uefa," warns Lucid, "and they advised us not to get stuck to a format just yet. They said to keep it broader and focus on a case for change rather than saying we've a perfect solution and it'll be like this. After all, retaining Uefa access is a big consideration and a part of that. What might be best for football commercially might not be best from a Uefa access view. But now the basis of our all-Ireland league is this..."

The first tier of 14 teams will see the top eight in the Republic next season qualify, the top five in the North, with the second-tier winners in the Republic play the sixth-placed team in the North for the last place via a play-off. Underneath them will be two 10-team second divisions with all other Republic senior clubs and those best placed in the North, with the split coming based on latitude rather than based on country.

"That allows movement up and down, as in the Republic now it's not good for integrity or competition that there's no relegation from the league. I understand why the clubs don't want to enter as it's tough financially but we are cutting travel fees, and we could lower affiliation fees, granted I'm nervous of telling the FAI what they should do. It's really about broader interest in the project and it's about a more attractive project for third-tier clubs which is senior leagues around the country. It creates a structure where there's a path for everyone from the top to the bottom."

Back on July 20 he presented to sides, and again on September 10.

Their main question involved money.

"Of course that was a concern. Look at the situation for them now, it's survival. When Dundalk went on their run, Preston then said we'll have him and him and, to use Dundalk's phrase, they didn't get so much as a bag of balls for them. It's a cycle they're stuck in. Clubs are under pressure, thinking about next week's wages but slowly I think I've started to win them around. I stressed that economically we should move up the value chain while keeping our raw materials and adding value until 21 or so, and clubs should then get properly compensated and plug into that lucrative transfer market in Europe.

"This all comes back to numbers that benefit the clubs. Every league in Europe, the main bulk of revenue is the TV deal. In Scotland, it's about £22.5m from that, sponsorship of £2m, then another pot of £7.1m and that's data exploitation, stats, Opta and so on. So it would be upon us as a separate company licensed by two associations to build all those pillars so we'd have title sponsors and the finances there."

That he says it do-able.

Already there is a television company interested in rights. He notes that he's held talks with the banks - "put it this way, if it was the League of Ireland I wouldn't have got in the door" - and AIB rebranding in Northern Ireland to match their Republic business found it interesting. Then there were the pots of cash for cross-border initiatives that their idea would fit like a glove.

Ultimately, with that the model, a portion of money would be equally split for participation, 25 per cent would be based on the Premier League idea of how much live coverage is demanded, and 25 per cent based on merit with distribution close to England and Germany which is near parity unlike Spain and Italy. "We ran the numbers about what we could conservatively hit and ambitiously hit, and conservatively the income per club would be better than what they receive right now."

What's not to like?

Only this is Irish football.

PART FOUR - THE FUTURE

Recently, reports emerged that some teams were drifting away from Lucid's plan, but he denies that. "I've just spoken to a batch of clubs and they are still hugely interested and want to know more." Thus he'll present on 24 October and the clubs will choose their own future from there.

He's done well but next is the hard part.

For instance, the FAI have their own version already pitched and that would keep it on this side of the border. Then there's the IFA.

"I'm very careful how I choose my words here," he says. "The IFA were cool on the idea, that would be the word. They need to see more meat on the bone and that's a phrase they use very regularly." At least they've taken the bone via a few meetings and that's more than many envisaged. Besides, why not as there's a benefit beyond just money, with Lucid talking about better pathways for players, thus better national teams.

"It's moving fast," he concludes. "It's unbelievably exciting but unbelievably hard work. We can't do this for five years. We are going full belt at this. Therefore it has a now or never feel to it all. There's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we can only hope it's seen that way."

There may be nothing to fear but fear itself.

In this horror story though, that's long been the problem.

THE SET-UP

Kieran Lucid's all-Ireland league, if agreed upon, wouldn't start until the 2021 season, marking 100 years since the split in Irish soccer. But based on today's standings the divisions would look something like this, if as an example Ballymena beat Shelbourne in a play-off.

PREMIER DIVISION

Ballymena, Bohemians, Cliftonville, Coleraine, Cork City, Crusaders, Derry City, Dundalk, Larne, Linfield, Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers, St Patrick's Athletic, Waterford FC,

DIVISION ONE NORTH

Carrick Rangers, Drogheda United, Dungannon Swifts, Finn Harps, Glenavon, Glentoran, Institute, Loughgall, Portadown, Warrenpoint Town

DIVISION ONE SOUTH

Athlone Town, Bray Wanderers, Cabinteely FC, Cobh Ramblers, Galway United, Longford Town, Limerick FC, Shelbourne, UCD, Wexford

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