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'New streaming service deserves your attention and, more importantly, your few quid'

Conan Byrne believes the League of Ireland should embrace its new reality of connecting with fans virtually.

Players at yesterday's launch.
Players at yesterday's launch.
Image: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

MENTION THE WORDS ‘commercialisation’ and ‘football’ in the same sentence and watch me squirm like a Limerick FC supporter hearing BJ Banda’s name.

It just doesn’t feel right.

Sure, the two have been bed-fellows since footballers’ portraits were used on the back of cigarette packs in the 1930s and it has been growing ever since. Rupert Murdoch cranked the dial up to 11 in the 90s and even though we all subscribed – quite literally – we remain sceptical about every new advancement.

So you can imagine the sense of trepidation when news filtered through that the League of Ireland – our very innocent domestic game which has almost gone untouched by the livestock branding of commercialisation for an entire century – would be trying on the emperor’s new clothes in the shape of live streaming.

Yes, we too gasped: ‘Won’t someone think of poor Tom!’

Supporters, and curious onlookers, will just have to adapt, at least for this shortened season. If we want live football during a global pandemic then this is the price we have to pay (which is actually a bargain when you see the fee attached).

Is streaming any different to TV coverage? Kind of. Back in 2017, I was lucky enough to take up the co-commentator microphone for a live streaming experiment that the Football Association of Ireland conducted. And you sneer that the same governing body doesn’t embrace change. Shame on you. 

The game selected for the viewing pleasure of those with a Facebook account was the EA Sports Cup semi-final between Shamrock Rovers and Cork City at Tallaght Stadium. And guess what? It went really well.

Okay, it didn’t lead to an immediate rival to GAAGO being established but it proved that there was an audience interested in watching domestic football in this way.

On Wednesday morning, the FAI announced the launch of a new streaming service and it is one that clubs should be looking at to generate funds that otherwise would not be available for behind-closed-doors games. Simple, cost-effective measures can go a long way to spruce up enthusiasm among a loyal fan base but more importantly, this service could, potentially, see an increase of new followers to their stadium, albeit in a virtual way.

Dundalk got a headstart on this by broadcasting two friendly games exclusively to their season ticket holders (and some selected media personnel). It was a slick service with the duo of Adrian Taaffe and Gavin McLaughlin providing excellent commentary. More than anything these two games showcased the professionalism and commitment needed by each club in the League to make a success of this ‘new’ technology.

But what can clubs do to maximise their streaming service to fans, you ask? Well, here are a few ideas:

  • Use the service to drum up support for local businesses and sponsors – they should never be forgotten – with strategically-placed adverts
  • Ensure that there are pre and post-match analysis segments that include interviews from the captains and managers
  • Don’t just use half-time to refill the tea pot, remember that you have an audience watching so roll out pre-prepared feature videos or even use a club journalist to conduct a live interview
  • If you are even daring enough, you might run a competition to win a signed jersey during the game to ensure interaction with your viewers
  • Remember that it needs to be a piece of entertainment, so let the production flow and give the viewer what they want – lots of football, analysis and debate

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watchloi-launch-event-at-fuel-studios RTE's John Kenny, George Hamilton, Stuart Byrne, Alan Cawley, Peter Collins and Tony O'Donoghue will be involved. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

It’s not a popular thing to do, but praise should be given to the FAI for bringing this service to life. When Interim Deputy CEO Niall Quinn first mentioned it some months ago, we snuffed that he would have better luck convincing Derek Pender to share a selfie with Hooperman.

But, for €55 for Irish residents and €69 for overseas subscribers, they have delivered a bargain that even Mattress Mick would be proud of. In fact, if it all goes well this new streaming service could act as a viable source of income for many years to come.

Before we get carried away and someone suggests that a Middle-East consortium swoops in to plunge millions into a club on the west coast, let’s check through the scattering of housekeeping items needed to complete.

There is the quality of the production (HD cameras, experienced camera operators, graphics packages, engaging and knowledge commentators – no this isn’t a pitch for a job), the state of our stadiums (more than a lick of paint is required to get them ready for Friday Night’s Ball), advertising (once someone subscribes, we need to keep them and then get their friends signed up), and consistency (it cannot be a vastly different experience when you switch between games).

My friend, and former Greatest League In The World podcast co-host, Con Murphy has long espoused the need to invest in quality to enhance the League’s image. He’s right.

If we expect people around the world to watch our League (for anything other than betting reasons) then we have to raise the standard with this streaming service. And that’s why people like Murphy, a masterful commentator and League fanatic, should be part of this new venture.

The bigger question to answer is whether streaming will affect attendances once the turnstiles open up again. We won’t know that until it comes back around. So, let’s embrace this service while we have football to enjoy again. Actually, let’s exploit it. Why stop at League games? What about live streaming U19, U17, U15 & U13 cup finals?

You would be surprised at the audiences they would attract as people tune in to watch the best underage players in the country.

If there is something that will promote the League in a positive fashion, you’ll have me signing up on Day One. This streaming service deserves your attention – and, more importantly, your few quid – as the drawn-out efforts to get football back finally come to fruition.

Forget about attracting more armchair, or laptop, fans and focus on attracting more fans. We can worry about match-day experience tactics ahead of the 2021 season, for now, let’s give this season our full support.

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