Sunday 18 August 2019

League of Ireland's 'brand aid' struggles to hit the right notes

It was a memorable day for everyone at Aviva presentation - but not always for the right reasons

FAI chief-executive John Delaney in attendance during the SSE Airtricity League Brand Review at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
FAI chief-executive John Delaney in attendance during the SSE Airtricity League Brand Review at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Last month, John Delaney confirmed that an international brand report on the League of Ireland had been presented to the board of the FAI. "Very impressive," he said. "A very good report."

Thursday, December 15 was pencilled in as the launch day and it was an expectant audience, including Delaney and members of the board, that filed into the press conference room at the Aviva Stadium to watch Jonathan Gabay deliver the fruits of his labour.

Club delegates from around the country had been invited along with members of the media to watch the final presentation.

The website of Maria Franzoni, a UK based speaker and advisory bureau, advertises Gabay's services as a creative strategist and independent brand marketer. It says that he charges fees of up to £7,000 for a speech. Airtricity League director Fran Gavin refused to disclose how much the association had paid Gabay for his work. "I'm not at liberty to talk about that," he said, later.

But the notes in the hard copy report said that the project was commissioned for a 12-week period. That's an expensive body of work if those figures give an indication of the going rate.

His slideshow started with a compliment as part of an introduction to the existing status quo. "Under John Delaney it's been amazing, and I say that independently," declared Gabay. "I'm reading out this list (of positive achievements) because there are so many things to remember."

The show was on the road. What followed was a thoroughly extraordinary presentation.

First came the problems, the issues that are holding back the brand.

Key areas pinpointed were poor decisions by clubs and bad behaviour by miscreant fans. The use of flares at games was referenced on more than occasion. Anti-FAI chants ("brazen chants") at matches were condemned as "the FAI, in all its broader aspects, from national administrators to associated volunteers - are in fact the League's greatest supporters".

Empty vessels - according to a message on the screen - were making the most noise. This was the point where one was left to wonder if Gabay had tapped into the reasons for the anger. As part of his research, the consultant had interviewed FAI staff members in addition to officials from senior clubs around the country, supporters representatives and, he assured us, plenty of taxi drivers.

He claimed that the main point raised by clubs was that they wanted the FAI to give them some cash, a line that was accompanied by an impression. "Can you tell them to give us some more money?" he mimicked, a quip accompanied by a slideshow where the word 'More' had morphed into 'Mor€'.

Gabay couldn't understand why certain League of Ireland officials took issue with the FAI's €5,000 offer per club for the devising of a strategic plan and referenced the Abbotstown authorities' "continued attempts to support and reassure" unhappy members.

Sponsorship

He acknowledged that clubs have sought details of the league's sponsorship deals because they want an idea of the value of the product from the FAI. The boundaries of confidentiality and transparency were briefly touched upon. But it is perhaps unfair to expect an outsider to offer a definitive view on the rights and wrongs. After all, he was brought in as an independent voice.

So we moved onto the positives again.

Correctly, Gabay noted the number of players that the domestic sphere had produced for the international team. That was listed as a plus point on a slide which also concluded that the league "is cool" and this, we are told, is a good thing.

But where this report really came into its own was the broad area of suggestions and solutions, the section where the 90-minute spiel veered into surreal territory.

Gabay did make some accurate points. The poor quality of stadia were highlighted: substandard toilet facilities and the complete absence of suitable corporate hospitality to name just two failings. Granted, these are things that every League of Ireland patron should already know without someone being paid to tell them, but it's no harm to lay it all out in plain terms.

Certainly, he seemed aware that the league needs driving in the right direction. And he quite literally wants a specially branded FAI bus with a new logo that would travel around the country to help that mission - a vehicle that would "become a familiar sight on the streets of Ireland".

A Hollywood walk of fame leading up to the entrance to grounds with stars containing the names of famous players was floated with an accompanying graphic of Shamrock Rovers great Pat Byrne as an example.

Sligo Rovers were told that a mural of WB Yeats around their ground might help. Oscar Wilde and James Joyce also got a mention.

Half-time EA Sports computer game tournaments on giant screens were recommended, although it begged one obvious question 'What giant screens?'

Tourism was another angle. League clubs were urged to arrange games with sides from equivalent leagues around the world with America's MLS and NASL put forward as part of "hands across the Atlantic match days" that could be scheduled for Bank Holidays.

The practicalities of how these initiatives might become realistic for cash strapped clubs were not dealt with.

In a subsequent Q&A with journalists, Gabay said he had worked with football clubs before "but not an entire league" and declined to go into specifics.

The debrief made it clear that the guest was unfamiliar with some of the local game's idiosyncrasies.

He recommended that managers engage in public spats to drum up a bit of publicity. "Between you and me it's a bit of showbiz but it builds the product and it makes it exciting so why not? I don't see why you can't do stuff like that," he claimed, not unreasonably.

The media pack informed him that figures working within the league were wary about speaking out in interviews because of the terms of the Participation Agreement, which Brian Kerr recently described as a "muzzle" on clubs.

Gabay looked at the FAI's director of communications for clarity.

He did so again when he moved onto the area of TV coverage, a section where he hit out at poor camera angles that made games look "dreary" and "dull". Gabay also spoke about the importance of video content for highlighting brilliant pieces of skill and goals as they happen.

It was put to him that Premier Division clubs are signed into a deal where they cannot broadcast clips of anything that happens in their matches until after Soccer Republic on RTE is shown on Monday evening, a good 72 hours after most of the fixtures take place.

"That's something they should definitely be speaking about, sure," he conceded. "We're living in 2017 soon, it's not pigeon post - that the goal is scored on Friday and you get to hear about it on the Monday. No. I think we've gone on from carrier pigeon."

The revelation did seem to be news to his ears. He also sought to make eye contact with the FAI man when he was asked about the fact that clubs receive no money for live broadcasts. This was uncomfortable subject matter.

Gavin was rolled out to give the FAI response now that the report was out in the open. What's the plan now?

"They're just his views on things," he said. "We'll bring it internally, have a look at it, see what we think and is there anything we can adapt and work on.

Commission

"We didn't commission him to do what we wanted. We commissioned him to have a look at the brand, review it and come back with some recommendations.

"We've set up an internal marketing group to look at the marketing of the league and it will be discussed at that level. We are in the process of hiring a marketing executive."

Those discussions will be interesting, with FAI staff acutely aware of the mixed response to the day's proceedings.

And, while some of the wackier recommendations dominated social media in the aftermath, the finished publication did include a couple of lines that showed an awareness of a complicated environment.

A quote from Niamh O'Mahony, a Cork City follower and board member of Supporters Direct Europe, stood out: "You cannot improve something easily without a true understanding of where it is at present."

Gabay's presentation did not get there. But if the authorities were really impressed by it, we might just be closer to the answer.

Report Proposals

  • The creation of a specially designed League of Ireland bus that would travel up and down the country brandishing a new logo
  • Bank Holiday games with sides from America's MLS and NASL
  • A Hollywood walk of fame leading up to grounds commemorating star players
  • Uplifting pre- and post-match music
  • Local bus stops painted in club colours
  • Local bus stops offering live scores
  • Half-time EA Sports gaming tournaments on giant screens in the stadium
  • Managers encouraged to speak controversially in the media
  • Name change from SSE Airtricity League to the 'League of Ireland sponsored by the SSE'
  • Crackdown on use of flares and discouragement of anti-FAI chants at matches

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