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'Lack of TV money is a sad indictment of how the League of Ireland is run, marketed and sold'

Why do we undervalue the league’s most lucrative selling points, asks John O’Sullivan.

"We are one of the few leagues in the world who can fill the demand for TV football over the long summer months." (File photo)
Image: INPHO

TWO WEEKS AGO I watched a free, live stream of Dundalk FC away to BATE Borisov on Dundalk’s website. I wondered if they could have charged for the service.

Fans pay for live football and TV companies pay clubs for live football all over the world. One of the better football books to cover the subject is ‘Goal’ by Ferran Soriano, Vice-President of Barcelona from 2003-08 and current CEO of Manchester City, New York City FC and Melbourne Heart. It’s a book about Barcelona’s off-field resurgence and football finance; a large chunk of it deals with TV money, which is non-existent in the League of Ireland.

The amount of LOI coverage on TV is good, particularly when Setanta pad out their summer schedule, but it doesn’t benefit clubs financially and there’s evidence that it might actually hurt. Last season Athlone Town were said to have refused broadcast permission to RTÉ for a home game citing a potential loss of income expected from away fans.

The lack of TV money in the League of Ireland is a sad indictment of how the game here is run, marketed and sold. There’s a global audience for live football, even for traditionally weak leagues. MLS games and Australian ‘A League’ feature regularly on our TV, driving interest and funds. The amount of money paid to EPL and Champions League teams is phenomenal.

The money that Barcelona can command, outlined in Soriano’s book, would set an unrealistic target for LOI clubs, but there are plenty of examples of smaller leagues forging excellent TV deals and partnerships, even in countries with blanket EPL coverage.

In 2013, the Norwegian Tippeligaten signed a four-year TV deal worth over €250m spread across Norway’s 16 top-flight teams. Norway is a country bombarded with English Premier League action every weekend. The TV money that Odds Ballklubb makes is something of which Shamrock Rovers, their Europa League rivals this week, can only dream.

This week, the Scottish Premier League signed a three-year, €700k per annum deal to have their matches shown on mainstream Chinese TV. The deal was brokered by MP & Silva who were commissioned by the SFA to investigate selling TV rights internationally. €2.8m per annum over the next 10 years has already been secured. Importantly, it will be distributed evenly across the 12 SPL clubs.

Sergei Chernik saves a David McMillan attempt Dundalk's Champions League first leg clash against BATE was streamed live online. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Even the Irish League put us to shame with the Sky Sports deal which brought in €14m over seven years before Sky took the decision to withdraw last summer. Irish League clubs who hosted Sky cameras only received about €7,000 per game, with the bulk of the monies making their way into IFA coffers, but they still received a fee that rewarded their welcoming Sky cameras.

Why do we so consistently and spectacularly fail? Maybe it’s because the general public and the FAI undervalue, undermine and undersell our product. It’s time to wake up.

RTÉ and the FAI have effectively locked down the ability of Irish clubs to benefit financially from domestic broadcast rights, but clubs have investigated the possibility of selling international TV rights, individually and collectively. It’s something the FAI should have investigated. It’s become a regular discussion point among clubs looking for a way to improve their lot by cashing in on the global football audience.

It’s not without risk. There’s a small but genuine fear that our relatively low level of player wages might leave us exposed to an increase in pressure with respect to match fixing, though I’m not convinced there would be a significant additional risk that that which currently exists should we broadcast to an international audience.

Some might question whether international rights might ever sell as they might not see where the interest would come from. It’s clear that many of our stadia look awful on TV and even our best, Turner’s Cross for example, has a camera position which doesn’t show the stadium in the best light. We need to be conscious of drawbacks but we need to be confident in the product and worth of our sport.

The fact of the matter is that there’s a global audience for televised football and we are one of the few leagues in the world who can fill that demand over the long summer months. It’s one of the few areas where we have a competitive edge and unique selling point and one we should take advantage of.

There is no logical reason why it can’t be done.

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