Is the League of Ireland under-supported?

Mon, Mar 20 2017

Credit: Tom Beary (ETPhotos)

There is a change to our Friday night football in Ireland this week. The League of Ireland is shuttled to Saturday so that the World Cup Qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Wales takes centre stage. Those two teams go head to head at a sold out 51,700 capacity Aviva Stadium on Friday.


The following evening there will be a full set of League of Ireland fixtures – the six Premier Division matches will likely bring in around 12,000 fans in total through the turnstiles – just enough to fill the Premium Level, including the boxes, in the Aviva Stadium. That doesn’t reflect too well on the ‘greatest-fans-in-the-world’ narrative.


So in terms of attendances, how exactly does our own domestic league compare with other leagues from around Europe? That is the question recently discussed in the Athens Journal of Sports.


Gate receipts are the life blood of the League of Ireland club’s balance sheet. In 2015, those gates receipts generated 31% of League of Ireland club’s revenue. In the domestic league in Wales, a full round of six Welsh Premier League games will bring less than 2,000 in total into their grounds.


Both leagues have to compete with wall-to-wall English Premier League coverage and for players and column inches with their respective national sports (gaelic games in Ireland and rugby in Wales). Only one player from either the Irish or Welsh squads play in their own country and that is Jazz Richards with Cardiff City. Of course Cardiff is one of two big Welsh clubs to play in the higher echelons of the English game - Swansea City in the Premier League and Cardiff City in the Championship – no doubt this impacts hugely on the overall attendances in the Welsh domestic league.


Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle made Martin O’Neill’s extended squad for Friday’s match but over the winter have made the move out of the League of Ireland from Dundalk to Preston North End. It remains 32 years since a player from our own league played in a competitive fixture for Ireland.


‘Is the League of Ireland under-supported? Evidence from a European Perspective’ is a study by Raymond Bachan (Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton) and Barry Reilly (Professor of Econometrics at the University of Sussex). Published in the Athens Journal of Sports, they reviewed data from across 48 top-flight football leagues in UEFA over the last 16 seasons. Their conclusion was that our league is not under-supported (but the Welsh league very much is).


The paper’s authors noted that the average annual attendance figure in the League of Ireland Premier Division over the last 16 years is 1,750. Back in 2005, the Genesis Report set an objective of getting an average attendance figure of 3,120 by 2010.


Rather than move towards that figure of in excess of 3,000, the crowds in the top flight are well away from that target. extratime.ie carried out detailed analysis of attendances for last year and an average of 1,471 fans came to each Premier Division game (see here).


Buchan and Reilly reviewed the attendance figures in each country across UEFA (discounting Andorra, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Lichtenstein, Malta and San Marino). They took into account the role of variables such as economic prosperity (unemployment rate), market size (population), league quality (UEFA ranking) and competitive balance (spectator demand) on overall attendance.


Looking across Europe, there are two leagues that are outliers – the Scottish Premier League and the Welsh Premier League. Consistently the SPL punches above its weight in terms of attendances given Scotland’s population, economic conditions, league quality and competitiveness. The Welsh league consistently punches below its weight – average attendances are a massive 82% lower than they should be taking those variables into account.


Meanwhile the League of Ireland matches the model, with the Paper authors noting that “there is no persuasive evidence to suggest that the league is under-performing in terms of attendances”. But could we realistically aim to reach the 3,000+ figure noted in the Genesis report?


Two of the four main variable factors are outside the influence of even John Delaney – the country’s population and unemployment rate – but the competitive balance and league quality are within the FAI’s sphere of influence.


The competitive balance was determined using the wonderfully named Herfindahl-Hirschman index. Attendances are increased when there is a greater competitive balance in the league i.e. more uncertainty in the outcome of matches (e.g. the favourite does not win every week).


Having a more competitive league is one of the arguments for a ten team top tier. extratime.ie previously reported on Barry Reilly’s paper where a conclusion could be drawn that a smaller Premier Division would increase attendances on average (see If you reduce it, they will come).


The FAI controversially announced just before Christmas that three teams would be relegated from the Premier Division this season and only one First Division club promoted. This will mean a reduction from 12 to 10 teams in the top flight for 2018. If you believe the statistical models then that should help with attendances in the top flight.


In relation to the UEFA co-efficient, the League of Ireland is currently in 38th place, sandwiched between Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina. We would have to improve our ranking by 15 positions up to 23 according to the analysis model to raise our average attendances above 3,000. We have only once broke into top 30 (reaching 29th in 2009/10) and so it would seem a tall order for us to progress significantly higher.


As outlined in our series of week-by-week attendances articles, there have been healthy crowds through the turnstiles since the start of the season. Over the first five fixtures in the top tier, on average 2,031 have attended matches in the Premier Division. This high figure is to be expected at the start of the season but there is a tendency for the average figure to drop off over the length of the league campaign.



The full paper by Raymond Bachan and Barry Reilly from the December 2016 Athens Journal of Sports can be read here: Is the League of Ireland Under-supported? Evidence from a European Perspective


Our usual weekly attendance article has also been published. Check out League of Ireland Attendances 2017 - Gameweek 5