The League of Ireland’s talent on the pitch needs to start being matched by work off the field, argues Thomas Stafford.
Last month saw a welcome development off the field at League of Ireland champions Cork City as the club announced the appointment of Paul Wycherly as the club’s new general manager. A finance graduate from UCC, Paul has worked at English clubs such as QPR, Millwall and AFC Wimbledon amongst others and brings a strong business acumen to Leeside.
Whilst Cork’s various on-field transfers and re-signings will attract more publicity, this development is even more meaningful for the club, and hopefully for the league as a whole. Paul will be tasked with improving the club’s structures, PR, marketing, revenue streams and sponsorship as well as numerous other areas. As a club of Cork’s size continues to grow, their work away from the pitch must progress simultaneously.
For the League of Ireland to develop, its clubs have to be viewed as viable commercial entities. National outfits cannot continuously put out the begging bowl and present themselves as viable just causes. The general public do not see them in the same way as they see a charity. Bucket collections and emotional pleas, whilst necessary, are not signs of an elite league. If anything they are to its detriment, further fuelling the fire that the league is not sustainable.
This is not how to build a successful brand, a successful legacy and, ultimately, a successful club.
Across the channel, over the 2016/17 season, matchday revenue made up a mere 15 per cent of Premier League clubs’ revenue streams. Commercial (26 per cent) and Broadcasting (60 per cent) brought in the majority of income. Unfortunately, the absence of meaningful media contracts in Ireland means that it often costs clubs money when their fixtures are shown on TV due to a subsequent fall in gate receipts.
Nevertheless, the League of Ireland is lagging behind in converting its product into a business. The ability of English clubs, at all levels and not just the top tier, to become substantial businesses in their own right is admirable. Countless sides in Scotland and TNS in Wales are further examples of how far behind the curve we are in Ireland.
There is so much untapped potential in this league and it is waiting to be unlocked. Most of the individuals tasked with responsibilities at LOI clubs are volunteers and it is difficult to be critical of any efforts. Yet if our league continues to project itself in an amateur manner, with its hands out begging for money, it will never be taken seriously by businesses or by the general public.
The few clubs who are seeing past this are fast reaping the rewards and a gap is clearly forming at the top of the domestic game.
We almost laugh at the countless stories of wage disputes, match-fixing allegations and floodlight failures that occur over the course of the season. These are the stories though that generate headlines and turn sponsors, businesses and potential supporters off the league.
Why would a well-managed, successful business want to get involved with such a thing? Businesses and brands want to be associated with positive, attractive stories when they get involved with sports sponsorships. The global sports sponsorship market is estimated to be worth $40 to $50 billion annually as corporations see sport as way of healthily portraying their brand. Unfortunately, little of this transcends into LOI funding.
The hugely-talented domestic players who gain moves to England almost constantly sign for minuscule fees due to the absence of long-term contracts in Ireland. Yet, this doesn’t happen in Croatia, Norway or Denmark, countries of a similar size to us. They view football as an industry, a business and are well-equipped when larger clubs from larger leagues come calling for their most talented stars.
Cork have shown their seriousness towards this matter and the hope is that others will follow suit. Most clubs arguably are doing such but rely heavily on volunteers with insufficient time and financials. The fact, however, that Cork now have an experienced individual employed to complete such tasks is exemplary. He will meet and engage with possible sponsors in a professional and business capacity, duly matching City’s prowess on the pitch. That is what League of Ireland football requires to take it to the next level.
The players in this country are good enough. The coaches are good enough. It is now time to make the end product match its parts. That requires the FAI and the clubs to portray our national league as a genuine, diligent entity.
Then, and only then, will this league be taken seriously.