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Laying out the facts, figures and potential formats of the proposed All-Island League

The IFA appeared to shoot it down, but work is continuing on a potential cross-border football competition in Ireland.

Dundalk's Chris Shields and Linfield's Stephen Fallon in action during last Friday's first leg tie in the cross-border Unite the Union Champions Cup.
Dundalk's Chris Shields and Linfield's Stephen Fallon in action during last Friday's first leg tie in the cross-border Unite the Union Champions Cup.
Image: Brian Little/INPHO

AS WE APPROACH the centenary of Ireland’s partition, plans are afoot to bring its football leagues together. 

Tech entrepreneur Kieran Lucid – who sold his data consultancy business for €2.9 million in 2016 – began working on a proposal for a potential cross-border league back in 2017, bringing together researchers, journalists and lawyers to review domestic football in Ireland. 

Dundalk had just bagged more than €6 million from their run to the Europa League group stages, and the aim of the research was to see if this could become a regular part of football in Ireland. 

The research evolved into a proposal for an all-island, cross-border football league, initially under the title Pro20. It was first envisaged that a 20-team league would be played across the standard winter season, and that both national cups would be retained.  Things have evolved since.

Firstly, Lucid is far from the only person involved.

He is one of eight people assembled to what they have called the All-Island League Advocacy Group, which is not-for-profit.

Brian Kerr is also among the group, along with former FA CEO Alex Horne, ex-League of Ireland Chairman Brendan Dillon, Catherine Toolan, the CEO of the Convention Centre in Belfast, Ciaran Medlar who is head of Tax at BDO Accountancy, marketing professional and independent Mayo councillor Mark Duffy, former Premier League commercial lawyer Oliver Weingarten and Stafford Reynolds, who was once Chairman of Glentoran FC. 

The group’s plans went public in June, and the league was conceived of as a 14-team top division with two regional leagues beneath it, linked by promotion and relegation. The league would be owned by the clubs, and both national cups would continue to be staged by the associations. 

This league format is broadly based on the Danish Superliga.

While the initial aim was to ask clubs to vote on whether to go ahead with the proposal in the Autumn, this time frame has now been pushed back. 

36 clubs from both sides of the border were invited to a meeting at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Dundalk on 24 October to listen to the group’s plans and ask whatever questions they wished to ask. 

During the course of discussion, the relatively meagre prize money returns in both leagues on the island were accentuated, with Scotland and Denmark frequent points of comparison.

The side that finishes second in the Scottish third tier receives £107,500 (€124,763) in prize money, for example, while the winner of the League of Ireland gets €120,000. 

The Danish league, meanwhile, generates €50 million in annual television revenues alone, which the group estimates to be a hundred times the combined TV deals on the island of Ireland. 

soccer-uefa-europa-league-2019-fc-copenhagen-11-dynamo-kiev FC Copenhagen fans at their Parken Stadium. Source: Lars Moeller

These figures were presented in the context of population: there are 5.4 million people in Scotland, 5.6 million in Denmark and 6.6 million on the island of Ireland. 

The argument is that while an all-island league might not pull in those figures straight away, it’s the best way of beginning to bridge the gap, given the possible football economy at its disposal. 

Clubs were told that the island of Ireland is running a football deficit of between €275 million and €325 million every year, when the money fans spend on cross-channel trips to games is added to the outlay on merchandise and satellite television packages. 

Scottish football had a net pay-out to clubs of £25 million (€29 million) last year: the group say they believe an all-island league could generate a quarter – €7.2 million – of that. 

Clubs were told of a range of different potential revenue streams under a potential cross-border league.

Two broadcasters have expressed an interest in showing it – although The42 understands that neither are streaming service DAZN, as has been reported – and while no firm figure has been discussed, the group say that a seven-figure sum has been proposed by one broadcaster and they are confident that the final agreed figure will be greater than either existing league are currently raking in. 

The group has spoken with sponsors, but the fact that they do not yet know the Pay TV/free-to-air split of the broadcast means they aren’t in a position to hold firm discussions. A sponsorship agency did, however, estimate that the league could pull in €1.5 million through a league title sponsor along with a series of tiered partners.

The aforementioned Danish/14-team top division format has not been settled on, but was used as the basis for preliminary discussions with broadcasters and sponsors. 

Clubs were told of potential funding under the Peace Plus programme, while the group will ask both governments to commit to investing in facilities and contributing a minimum level of funding to the league.

In terms of revenue, one of the biggest concerns among club is any potential loss of prize money from Uefa competitions.

The widespread assumption among fans is that bringing the leagues together would greatly reduce the number of places in the Champions League and Europa League on offer to clubs, which currently stands at four each.     

In this context, perhaps the most significant detail from the Dundalk meeting is that the group is not wedded to the Danish/14-team format.

Instead, they have employed a consultancy firm called Hypercube – who have worked with Uefa and were also the group who decided on the present structure of the Danish league – to gather data and opinion from a host of different stakeholders – clubs, players, coaches, fans, associations, journalists and governments – and propose a format to the clubs. 

The group says that retaining the present number of European places is the starting point for their work.

They told clubs that it is their opinion the Danish/14-team format has the greatest potential to improve the game in Ireland and begin to narrow the gap to leagues like those in Scotland and Denmark, and there may be a way to retain eight European places under this format. 

(It would involve four European places being assigned to the league, another going to each winner of the National Cups and a further two going to the winners of two League Cups to be run by the league.)

Other possible formats mentioned to clubs include a Setanta Cup-style format, or a split season, in which the leagues are run separately on a home-and-away basis before merging for a cross-border element in the latter third of the year. 

It’s likely that these latter formats will have a better chance of retaining the existing number of European places.

Hypercube will now take over the process, and have asked if clubs will furnish them with a series of figures, including attendances, results, and TV viewership and revenue across the past five seasons. 

The firm will also analyse and compare the chances of clubs reaching the group phase of the Europa League and Champions League under the current format, an all-season cross-border set-up and a split-season scenario. 

It’s envisaged that they will have a proposal ready for clubs by the third week of December, with a final decision to be taken by the clubs as to whether to proceed by January.

From there, if the clubs vote to progress, it’s hoped to begin discussing options with the IFA and FAI, before making a formal approach to Uefa. 

No official talks have yet taken place with Uefa.

Along with getting clubs on board, Lucid told The42 ahead of that Dundalk meeting that it was essential that both national associations are involved. “I don’t think this league will get off the ground with the reluctant and tacit approval of the associations – it needs them to become involved and to actively back it.” 

While the FAI have been open to it – interim CEO Noel Mooney has said the idea is worth exploring but voiced a note of caution on its timeframe – the IFA have been more difficult to persuade. 

A week after the Dundalk meeting among clubs, CEO Patrick Nelson released a statement to say that the IFA would not sanction their clubs to compete in the competition, that instead they would be best served “by remaining with the club-led model established in 2013 via the Northern Ireland Football League.” 

patrick-nelson IFA CEO Patrick Nelson. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The Irish league is improving – Linfield’s 3-2 home win over a Qarabag side that comfortably beat Dundalk is testament to that – but it is coming from a low base: the league is currently ranked at 48 in Uefa’s rankings, ahead of only Gibraltar, Montenegro, Estonia, Kosovo, Faroe Islands, Andorra and San Marino. 

The reception of the proposals among Irish league clubs has been mixed. Cliftonville Chairman Gerard Lawlor described the proposal as a “pipe dream” and “unrealistic”, while Ballymena United – having voiced their concerns at the Dundalk meeting – released a statement agreeing with the IFA, saying that continued membership with the NIFL is best for their club. 

Not all Irish league clubs have made up their minds. Crusaders Vice-Chairman Mark Langhammer told The42 that his club believes the proposals should be further explored. 

“Well-formed proposals to enhance the domestic leagues don’t come around often, maybe once a generation.

So, we wanted to take time to look at it, study it, digest it, share it with our fans-owners, query it, pull it apart a bit – in short – to test it properly. Always a ‘mixed’ club, but with a home in a strongly loyalist district in North Belfast, it was imperative that we take our time to consider the outworkings of the AIL proposal from all angles.”

He describes the public reactions of the IFA, Cliftonville and Ballymena to the proposals as “knee-jerk put-downs”, and his club intend to explore the plans further and will hold an open information evening on the proposals at their stadium on Thursday, 28 November. 

Members of the advocacy group have privately rebutted the IFA’s claim that their projected figures are “highly speculative”, citing the fact that formal talks with broadcasters and sponsors cannot begin until a final, definitive format has been decided upon. 

Irish League clubs eager to further explore the plans told a recent NIFL meeting that they should be allowed to do just that: explore the potential of the proposals. 

As of now, Hypercube will continue their work with the clubs that have agreed to work with them, and the final format and viability of an all-island league should be clearer before Christmas. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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