LOI Reform: Media Engagement

The following is the fifth part of an article I had previously planned to be included in a Lovely Left Foot project, which has since not come to pass. With some rewriting to make the overall content more current (the bulk was written a year or so ago), I present it now in several sections, which I will publish in the lead-up to the 2014 seasons kick-off.

The first part, on League Organisation.

The second part, on FAI Oversight.

The third part, on Internal Club Issues.

The fourth part, on the Creation/Retention Of Quality Players.

Media Engagement

If there is a “magic bullet” out there for Irish football, the thing that could do the most, on its own, to revive the fortunes of the LOI, it is media engagement on a larger level.

The League of Ireland needs attention. The media, and the correct use of its various facets, is the only way to gain that attention. There are many branches to look at, many avenues to explore. It, more than anything else in my opinion, has to be changed radically.

As of right now, the TV rights deal that the FAI has with RTE, the national broadcaster, is a shockingly one sided affair, to the detriment of the actual clubs. Institutions in England can live or die based on the much needed “TV money”, but in Ireland such money does not even exist.

RTE broadcasts a selection of LOI games every year, and has an hourly highlights package every week. In return for the right to air such footage, live and after the fact, RTE essentially gives Irish clubs nothing. Much like the FAI, the national broadcaster is more concerned with the airing of international games and, up to last year, the English Premiership. This state of affairs means that the FAI has become hamstrung by the current and past deals, whereby the association, for all intents and purposes, pays RTE (through reduced fees for Ireland games) to showcase the actual league of the country. RTE did pay out some TV money a few years ago, but no longer does in any considerable way.

This has to stop. The FAI has allowed its league to be somewhat debased by this deal. It would be nice to see some hardball employed.

There are other options after all. TV3, Setanta, even the Irish-language channel TG4 could all potentially take over as the primary channel of Irish football (Setanta already showing a small selection of games, like the League Cup Final). RTE does not have a monopoly on Irish televisions and while all the aforementioned channels might balk at paying out too much, they could be options that would be better for the League of Ireland.

I don’t expect RTE, having its own financial troubles, to pay up much. Put it should be obligated to pay something, to give some monetary recompense back to the clubs that it shows weekly and gets advertising revenue from. In such an event, RTE would be more inclined to publicise such programming, to a far better extent than they currently do, in order to try and make back their investment. More advertising, more attention for the league, more revenue for clubs (and RTE). This is a symbiotic circle, it is plain to see, it just has to be kicked off and committed to.

RTE can also do more with their highlights programme – the oft-derided “Monday Night Soccer” which has come in for some criticism from LOI fans for its production quality and total lack of interest in the First Division – and with the likes of radio and online formats. I speak of opening more games for web-streaming, home and abroad, more matches covered through radio. Nothing can compare to the kind of draw that TV brings though, and it is that which must become the main avenue of assault.

Because the League of Ireland needs that kind of high-profile space in order to show off its wares. Clubs can, and should, be pro-active about their own advertising, in local papers, radio stations, posters, flyers, even just plain old word of mouth. The League of Ireland simply has to become a more attractive prospect for the casual Irish football fan, the kind of place that becomes a viable option for an evening’s entertainment. TV cameras, radio mikes, the printed picture and word, they all help. They’re not being utilised enough by today’s clubs.

Newspapers should be lobbied to give more space to the national league too. Far too often these days it is the exploits and travails of the English and Scottish leagues that dominate the printing presses. That is what people are interested in after all, but it should not be too much to ask for such outlets to provide more than two pages a week to LOI action and review. Fans voting with their feet, and wallets, are the way to convince papers to change that.

The online dimension has never been more critical. The FAI and their rather atrocious LOI website fall flat there, but places like Extratime and Foot.ie have provided better outlets for the LOI’s online presence. Things like fan-created podcast shows and streaming commentary from matches are also ideas that should be explored further by clubs, especially considering the lack of care the governing body in Ireland has for such ideas. Waterford United and its fanbase have a half-decent set-up in that regard and should be applauded for that. Such endeavours should become the focus of more clubs, even if it is just to keep a professional looking, routinely updated, website.

But all of the media attention in the world will do no good if the product is not attractive enough. I happen to think the league is more than good enough to deserve all of the attention that I have mooted above, but in line with the reform of coaching players from a young age, we need to institute an exciting, competitive league structure, where any game between any two sides can be said to have some level of attraction going for it. I cannot bring myself to tell League of Ireland clubs how they should play, that isn’t really for me to say (or expect). But if the LOI follows the systems of Spain and Germany, trains more skilful players, creates a better league through reforms, then we will have a product that no media outlet should resist advertising and featuring.

In conclusion, I can only say that I am aware of how unrealistic some of the above is. Money is always the most important thing and nothing can get kickstarted without it. As the FAI works away its debts – just as Ireland does – the average fan of the LOI may simply have to wait for significant reform to be implemented.

But, some of the ideas above, especially media engagement, are workable now and can improve the league. As long as some progressive steps are made in the short term to improve the LOI, I’ll be satisfied. Something more than the laissez faire attitude that the FAI has been seen to take much of the last few years. Something more than the devil may care attitude of some clubs in the last few years. Something more than the begrudging pessimism of some fans in the last few years.

This is our league. It is something which should be proud off, but it is also something that can be improved. There are things we can do, that clubs can do, that the FAI can do. Together, we can bring the League of Ireland, properly, into the 21st century.

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