The League of Ireland’s streaming service is in jeopardy as only around 11,000 customers paid to watch games on the platform.
Clubs were last week informed by the FAI that WATCHLOI, the partnership with RTE in collaboration with GAAGO, was not a commercial success and wouldn’t be rolled out for a full season.
That is because of the disappointing take-up for the abridged schedule that allowed the 2020 campaign to be finished behind closed doors.
RTE are believed to have incurred full production costs north of €300,000 for the half season while the FAI did make a contribution towards the signal cost.
While the 85-game service consisting of Premier Division and selected FAI Cup fixtures did record a small dividend for the FAI that was split amongst 19 clubs, RTE have told Abbotstown that an increased expense for covering every Premier game in a season (180 matches before the FAI Cup, First Division and Women’s National League are taken into consideration) does not make financial sense given the sales returns.
The Irish Independent has learned that close to 4,700 buyers bought a season pass which was originally priced at €55 for Irish customers and €69 for overseas users, with the remainder of a figure close to 11,000 consisting of casual buyers who paid for chosen fixtures on a match-by-match basis.
In September, former FAI interim CEO Gary Owens said the figures were ‘disappointingly low’ but in line with budgetary projections.
No firm targets were set but it’s thought that – privately – around 20,000 buyers would have been viewed as justification for proceeding along similar lines for 2021. The FAI were initially confident they could make progress in the overseas market.
Separate to the 11,000, season ticket holders left out of pocket by the lockdown were given the chance to use WATCHLOI for free as part of a compensation arrangement with the FAI and clubs and it’s understood that around 6,000 fans around the country availed of this option.
But it’s accepted those viewers cannot accurately be used to gauge the viability of the project because they will be first in line when stadiums reopen - even on a restricted basis - and the contingent includes individuals from the same household.
Indeed, a pertinent figure is that from September onwards, the average watching each game on the platform dropped to somewhere in the region of 2,600.
It is acknowledged that the lack of a title race created by Shamrock Rovers’ success did not help, while high-profile matches were broadcast on either RTE or Eir Sport.
Uncertainty hangs over where the 2021 season stands in terms of spectator access and the FAI last week said they were looking at seven different options for streaming and broadcasting.
WATCHLOI is not dead in the water. RTE are understood to have indicated they are willing to cover around a third of the Premier Division season on the platform - somewhere in the territory of 50-60 games - and that would additional to the 15 or so fixtures they show on terrestrial TV.
It is unclear how the offer would function in the event of grounds opening up later in the year and - if accepted - it's possible the service could be weighted towards the early months after the March kickoff but covering every game is firmly a non-runner.
Eir Sport also had a deal to cover 15 games in 2020 – they did not meet that commitment on account of the pandemic - and their status going forward is unclear with speculation that Premier Sports may come into the fray for a smaller package but the existence of a streaming service is unattractive for TV stations reliant on subscribers.
The FAI are looking at third party alternatives.
Individual clubs would favour a service that allowed them to take the money from games where they are due to be a home side, with smaller entities viewing this as a chance to replicate the boost that comes with playing host to a team with a bigger fan base.
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Dominic Corrigan’s recall is crystal clear. He remembers when a young student named Kieran McKenna came into St Michael’s CBS in Enniskillen in September 1997 and stepped onto the Gaelic football pitch to make an impression that remains fresh in the mind.