Column: Numbers don't add up in critique of League of Ireland crowds

Sun, Jul 19 2020

The highest crowd of the 2019 league season was for Shamrock Rovers against Bohemians in August (7,021) Credit: Eddie Lennon (ETPhotos)

2020 has been a strange old year.

Not least for Irish football fans in the last fortnight even as we sat through the twists and turns of the various disputes around the League of Ireland’s return to play after lockdown. The publicity that this has attracted does not seem to have pleased everybody and, last month, Sunday Independent columnist Eamonn Sweeney was concerned that his readers might get a misleading impression about the number of people who care about the league (see here). Heaven forbid!

Even by 2020 standards this was a curious sight. There, in black and white (plus a colour photograph of a Dublin Derby in Dalymount) was a man who once devoted a chunk of his adult life to writing a book about a League of Ireland club ('There's Only One Red Army - A book for people who love (or hate) football'), urging fans of the league to “grow up”.

The reasons for this appeared to be that: no one cared about the LOI; it receives too much media coverage as it is, so stop asking for more; people are right not to care because the league is rubbish, and its not going to get any better. Indeed, this rubbish time was a “golden age”, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Sweeney’s arguments, for want of a better word, were illustrated (let’s not say supported) by a blizzard of attendance statistics for sporting events and competitions from across Ireland, Britain, and Europe [using figures from extratime.com’s records it seems which are available here - Ed]. These statistics were almost always selected and arranged in order to paint the league in, as Sweeney himself put it “an unforgiving light”. 

Nowhere was this more apparent than when Sweeney sought to call out those who describe Sligo town as “soccer-mad”. This was done by highlighting that the average attendance for a day’s racing at the County Sligo Race Course exceeds that for the local LOI club’s home games in the Premier Division. The fact that there are about eight days of racing in Sligo per year but 18 home games in the league for Sligo Rovers was not mentioned. 

Of course, there is more to Sligo’s designation as a ‘soccer town’ than the exceptional percentage of the local population that attends matches at the Showgrounds. There is no such thing as the Sligo/Leitrim Junior Horse Racing League and the local kids don’t spend their time holding jumpers-for-fences Grand Nationals complete with Davy Russell replica kits in Michael O’Leary colours. That’s also why some consider horse racing to be relatively marginal to Irish life. Perhaps Sweeney’s hostility to the association of Sligo with proper football reflects his own status as a GAA partisan?

Sweeney’s latter allegiance was apparent in his criticism of the amount of coverage the League gets currently. Sweeney correctly asserted that there “was scarcely any point” in comparing LOI attendances to inter-county GAA, but that didn’t stop him doing so and his comparison of choice was between the relatively large crowd of 7,021 at Tallaght Stadium for the Dublin Derby last August and the “scarcely mouth-watering Connacht football quarter-final between Roscommon and Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon”. 

Although the 2019 Connacht Gaelic football quarter-final between Roscommon and Leitrim was in fact played in Roscommon town, Sweeney must have been referring to that game since he mentions a crowd 8,021 and that is the figure listed in the Irish Independent of 13 May 2019. On the copies examined by extratime.comthat May 2019 GAA clash received more coverage across the Sunday and daily editions of the Indo than did the August 2019 iteration of the Dublin Derby, with the report of the latter taking up two thirds of one broadsheet column compared to the GAA report’s full tabloid page. 

The previews of Roscommon-Leitrim were also more extensive, understandably so since Rovers-Bohs is played at least four times a year. The coverage the newspapers to which Sweeney contributes strike down his claim that the amount of column inches devoted to the League of Ireland is excessive considering the attendances. Unless he is saying that the same is true of Roscommon-Leitrim?

In relation to media coverage, a similarly duberious claim was made that Connacht’s professional rugby team is “overlooked in a way that Rovers or Dundalk” are not. Sweeney felt that this was unjustifiable since Connacht Rugby’s average home crowd in the Pro-14 was a couple of thousand more that the average for Shamrock Rovers Premier Division game in Tallaght. No sane rugby fan could feel dissatisfied with the level of coverage of the game in the national media.

Admittedly, the Sunday Independent did devote about 50% more space to its preview of the FAI Cup final between Rovers and Dundalk than to its report on Connacht’s Pro-14 game away to the Ospreys the previous day, but this is hardly a like for like comparison. Furthermore, the previous week’s Connacht game had, in spite of a similarly brief report, been supported with a splash headline and a photograph. Indeed, the Sunday Independent’s coverage of Connacht’s Saturday afternoon kick offs always dwarfs the derisory mention of the most recent Dublin Derby in February. 

At this point I’ll take a leaf out of Sweeney’s book and admit that there is scarcely any point to some of my comparisons. Where I’ll diverge from Sweeney is in acknowledging things related to my factoids that support the other side of the argument. For example, the most recent Dublin Derby was covered extensively in the following Monday’s Irish Independent and the coverage took up the greater part of a two-page spread. Even if most of the derby coverage concerned the scheduling of the game and the circumstances of the cancellation of the TV coverage due to high winds, the report on the match itself was still larger than that on Connacht’s humbling of Cardiff at the Sportsground. 

The football/rugby coverage of that weekend is an example of how the coverage any team or sport receive in the media reflects the amount of other newsworthy events that are taking place. Whether that is in their own game, in sport more broadly, or in the world in general. Connacht are absolutely not overlooked in favour of Rovers and Dundalk, even if the recent on-off saga concerning the restructuring of the LOI season was of such a fractious nature that it generated more heat and thus more column inches than the discourse around the IRFU’s ‘return to rugby’ which was far more sane/genteel (delete to taste).

Overall League of Ireland coverage is fine at the moment. The league can no longer claim to be frozen out of the media. Some of the moaning about Soccer Republic last year was over the top; no one needs to see Dave Barry sweating his way through half-cooked analysis in a time of podcasts. Perhaps the only issue is that the coverage is very patchy. Tabloid newspaper coverage is usually very good; broadsheet less so. Although Daniel McDonnell’s work in the Indo is a bit of an exception. Likewise, coverage on RTÉ and Eir is excellent, while coverage on Virgin Media, home of the Europa League, and TG4, home of club GAA, is pathetic. Indeed, Eamonn Sweeney might like to note the regularity with which Connacht rugby features on TG4 throughout the year.  

As Sweeney’s article moved from media coverage and on to the theme of how terrible the league itself is, the hostility and the arrangement of facts to make the league look as bad as possible continued. Recent attempts to improve the league were dismissed. Sweeney claimed that Niall Quinn was doing the league no favours by saying there was a reservoir of good will available to it, poured further scorn on suggestions that the league was in an “unusually parlous position at the moment” due to FAI mismanagement, and claimed that the proposed all-Ireland league was as likely to reduce crowds as increase them. Each of these attacks was problematic in its own way.

Niall Quinn is correct to state that the league has a reservoir of good will. This is in part because as a football competition the league has sometimes less work to do in converting the public to its cause. People instinctively ‘get’ why the European games are important. Furthermore, the league was one of this country’s primary sporting concerns, even if that time is rapidly becoming a small dot in the rear-view mirror. This is not the golden age, Eamonn.

The league’s unusually parlous position is largely due to the global pandemic, but it is in part due to the mismanagement of the FAI over the past decade as money that was allocated by UEFA to support domestic professional competitions was spent elsewhere within the association even before the financial scandals ensured the depletion of reserves that might otherwise have been drawn upon during the current crisis.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the event of an all-Ireland league. However, it seems unlikely that crowds would be reduced as the article suggested they might. Sweeney claimed that this was as likely as an increase because both Linfield and Glentoran averaged fewer people at their home games than the LOI Premier Division average crowd. However, since both clubs average more than most of the bottom half of the LOI attendance league table surely their inclusion would be likely to increase attendances. Even if increased costs and a loss of European money might cause problems for clubs. 

This brings us to a central problem with the article. The blizzard of attendance statistics was deployed, without context, to denigrate the LOI, its fans, and its prospects. No account was taken of other factors such as off field income.

Although he sniffed at the league’s crowds in comparison to the GAA and horse racing Sweeney did point out that they were not too bad compared to other European countries with similar populations to our own. This was not done to add some much-needed positivity to the article, rather it was a rope-a-dope strategy to allow Sweeney’s to land some blows about level of football in the league being exceptionally poor. Citing the crowds that attend games in countries with similar UEFA rankings to ours Sweeney suggested that other countries seemed to be getting greater bang for their buck in terms of their crowd-to-quality-footballer ratio. 

One of the main reasons our clubs struggle in Europe is the income streams available to clubs in other countries on top of gate-receipts. These income streams are often driven by media coverage which brings the games to many more people than those present in the ground. As happens with Connacht rugby and their regular TV coverage, in fact. Furthermore, the situation that money generated by betting on football is ring fenced and spent on horse racing does not happen in other countries.

This lack of off-field and non-matchday income is one of the principal structural factors holding our league back. Although Sweeney is correct to state that there are other structural factors, such as the size of the country, the strength of the GAA, and the prevalence of English football.

Sweeney was also correct to say that no one should be berating the public for their ingratitude but surely it isn’t too much to expect someone who claims to love the league to support measures which might make it more stable. Better central funding from UEFA, access to the funds generated by betting taxes, and at least some TV income could help to achieve this. Don’t most committed sports fans want the best for their game and their club? Wanting your club and the league to improve is not the same as spending money you don’t have. 

Overall, the article had the feel of a hostile rant from either the kind of GAA fan who is 'concerned with seeing soccer erased from the sporting map of this country' or a bothered barstooler suffering from a bout of colonial cringe. Neither is a good look, especially from a fella who should know better. 

Please come back to the path of the righteous, Eamonn.