The FA of Ireland announced last week that 2017 will be the final year of the top professional division having 12 teams. At the end of the next season, three teams will be relegated from the SSE Aitricity League (Premeir League) to the First Division, and only the First Division champion will be promoted. Thus, beginning in 2018, the two top divisions of Irish soccer will have ten teams each instead of the unequal 12 and 8 they currently have.
The announcement was coupled with the release of Jonathan Gabay’s “League of Ireland Brand Report” (more on this later) and a year after the Declan Conroy Report which made sweeping recommendations for Irish club football. The Conroy report recommended structural and marketing changes to the SSE Aitricity League in order to promote its growth domestically and internationally. Last week’s announcement, which was recommended in the report, is a victory for the larger clubs, who reportedly disliked the top flight being “watered down” with too many less competitive clubs at the bottom of the table.
Ironically this proposal to make Irish soccer more competitive overshadowed the release of the league schedule. In particular, the first match of the season was sure to generate a ton of buzz for the league, as it pits Dundalk (current champions) against Shamrock Rovers, one of the country’s biggest brands. Derry City also take on Bohemians at Dalymount Park, again pitting two popular brands in a historic venue. Not staggering the announcements contradicted the league’s idea of building buzz around the positive aspects of the league as laid out in its reports.
In addition, the announcement of the league changes was immediately met with criticism from fans and management. Stephen Henderson, manager of Cobh Ramblers, decried the lack of opportunities this season for First Division clubs to move up. He also tweeted
As for those clubs that voted for this ! You are an integral part of the problem in LoI football.
— Stephen Henderson (@stevehendo07) December 22, 2016
The League of Ireland has a number of challenges facing it. As we mentioned in our Dublin city guide, soccer in Ireland is firmly behind a number of other sports in popularity. Internationally, the League has struggled to gain traction in European competitions and as a result loses out on better talent. But the struggles at home are even worse. Many clubs, including some of the premier brands, are struggling to secure permanent modern stadiums for their clubs. The pay structure for players has come under criticism as possibly more than 20% of players’ salaries would fall below Ireland’s minimum wage laws, according to one player survey. New side Wexford has seen five players this offseason leave the club for jobs in New Zealand. These were not transfers to other clubs; the players quit soccer to find jobs that paid better wages.
The Conroy Report was bullish on the league but blunt about some of the challenges it faces. The report, though, was too even-handed to really make a difference in advancing the league. While obviously tilted toward the big clubs in some of its recommendations, it still had a conciliatory approach to the entire league and advocated for an “rising tides raise all boats approach”. For example, in his press conference Conroy warned against a spike in prize money for league winners.
Gabay’s report was similar, in that it praised the league’s progress and positive brand. However, it sought to improve that brand through corporate buzzwords and a few outside-the-box ideas. One idea of note to American soccer fans was to bring MLS and NASL teams to Ireland for friendlies. While the idea is interesting, it would be a much better one if it was the Irish teams coming to America, although that would be an expense for Irish teams. The report also advocated for stadiums to serve as venues for eSports tournaments and have installed massive screens.
There is a temptation on this side of the pond to equate MLS with LOI. Both play a different schedule from other major leagues, both are farther down on the list of favorite sports in their own country, and both are seeking to reinvent their brand to be more relevant internationally. But where the U.S. has over 300 million people and tons of cities to build sustainable soccer leagues, Ireland is roughly the size of Indiana. There is little space for new franchises to sprout up unless they displace or merge with existing ones.
Dividing the professional league equally was a good, if poorly executed, first step toward being more relevant in European soccer. To continue this journey, the LOI has to do two things, one a continuation of current practice and the second an almost heretical idea.
The first is to continue developing the youth system in the country and to tie it to the club system. Ireland has an improving U-19 and U-17 program. As we have seen with MLS “homegrown players”, youth players developed by the clubs are a good inexpensive source of talent that can be brought through the senior team. This has been an initiative for a few years, and should continue to be.
The second is to upend the idea of equality among the clubs. The League seemingly takes a “rising tides raises all ships” approach to competition, where champions are recognized but the financial incentives for excelling are lower. Dundalk last season won €100,000 for winning the league, but it could be more. LOI needs to create a financial incentive system whereby teams who meet certain levels of success are financially compensated to allow them to build on that success.
Take Dundalk. The club gained a lot of attention for its run in the Champions League and Europa League, which was good press for Irish soccer. The League should have a system built-in where their clubs are financially boosted for their successes. In this case, Dundalk would win a larger purse for winning the top flight, which would allow them to invest for the Champions League. When they advance past the first round, they would receive another league bonus, and so on.
Critics would argue that this reinforces the strongest sides to the detriment of the smaller ones, and they’d be right. One of the League’s image problems is that it is a small fish in a large pond, and only by its teams succeeding in European competitions will it change that perception. The level of equality in the league right now is strong enough that a Celtic/Rangers situation is unlikely. However, a club that does things right and helps the league grow financially should be compensated for that.
This change, however, needs to be a second step AFTER the League invests more money in the clubs themselves. Over the next few years, all of these reports and their recommendations need to be examined so to figure out how to infuse all clubs with enough money to become stable and permanent. The money also needs to be used to boost player salaries to keep some talent in Ireland, or at least allow all professional players to earn a living wage. The League is beginning to think more strategically about how to keep its brand relevant and vibrant, but the changes will need to go much further than just dropping more teams to the second division.