Somebody has to shout stop as English Premier League stranglehold in Ireland strengthens

It might be worth it for League of Ireland clubs to hand out fliers outside events like the Dublin Decider encouraging barstool fans to take a chance on their own domestic league

Sat, Aug 17, 2013, 00:01

It will not have escaped the attention of sports fans in Ireland that the fastest-selling football match since the Aviva Stadium opened in 2010 did not involve the national team.

All 51,000 tickets for the match between Liverpool and Celtic sold out within an hour of going on sale, while the Republic of Ireland cannot sell out even critical qualification games against world-class opposition such as Germany.

The Irish public is so accustomed to this phenomenon of support for foreign teams that they simply regard it as a benign curiosity, a harmless indulgence or a collective case of arrested development.

It is none of these things. Irish support for the English Premier League costs this country dearly and is a lingering manifestation of our national inferiority complex.

Most critically, it has led to a perennially impoverished League of Ireland because generations of Irish football fans have turned their backs on their own domestic league like the Celtic fans did while doing the ‘Poznan’ at the Aviva Stadium.

So many Irish football grounds lack the facilities because they don’t have the money. Because they don’t have the money, the public don’t come and so the cycle continues from one decade to the next.

Two years ago I came across statistics from VisitBritain about the number of foreign visitors to Premier League and Scottish Premier League grounds. In the 2010-2011 season there were 164,000 visits by Irish fans to British grounds.

The average spend for foreign fans was €776 (€884.64). Multiplying 164,000 by €884.65 gives a figure of €145 million. I ran the numbers many times. Surely, Irish fans couldn’t spend that amount of money in a year? Surely the decimal point was in the wrong place?

It must be €14.5 million, but the decimal point was in the right place.

Last season the number of Irish visits increased to 174,000 despite the recession and the average spend for foreign visitors to the Premier League was £785 (€962) per fan.

That average figure is inflated by those who come from the Middle East and Asia and spend a lot of money.

A more accurate figure might equate to something around €400 per visit per Irish supporter. This equates to €70 million a year spent by Irish fans in England and Scotland

Even that figure is dwarfed by the money that comes from subscriptions to Sky, Setanta and now the newest kid on the block, BT Sports.

It has gone largely unnoticed that Sky, a foreign broadcaster, is by far the biggest player in the Irish television market. According to a report compiled by Oliver & Ohlbaum, Sky’s revenues in Ireland in 2011 was €382 million.

Subscription revenue has increased massively even since the recession started, going from €383 million in 2007 to €515 million in 2011 while advertising revenue has collapsed in the same time frame, hurting the domestic broadcasters most.

Sky’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, built his Sky television empire on the back of Premier League rights.

Sky Sports charges a hefty premium of €35 a month for the privilege of hearing their presenting teams hyperventilating over Fulham v Norwich City.

Setanta too has based its own business model on securing its share of Premier League matches.

Merchandising is another way in which hard-earned Irish cash is transferred to British clubs.

Observe the ranks of Irish Liverpool and Celtic fans at last Saturday’s match and count the replica shirts. At a conservative estimate, half the fans were wearing replica shirts. At €60 each that equates to €15 million worth of merchandising at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and that’s just two clubs and one match.

The Irish sports merchandising market is worth €388 million a year according to an Indecon report published five years ago. Tens of millions of that is spent buying Premier League and Celtic merchandise.

Factor in too the DVDs, books, magazines, sticker albums and general tat, along with the millions spent in dingy pubs watching the likes of Stoke and Sunderland on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The bill for the Irish infatuation with British football teams must surely be north of €300 million. That is the type of money that would sustain a domestic league capable of producing several clubs which could qualify for the Champions League group stages with plenty of spare change to ensure every community has decent football facilities.

It is a shocking waste of money and to what end? The Premier League, which begins this weekend, is morally bankrupt. Club after club, which claims the allegiance of Irish football fans, have sold up to foreign owners. The Premier League has become a playground for plutocrats, the neo-liberal league as it has been described, where all that matters is money.

Contrast that with the four clubs which qualified for the Champions League semi-finals this year. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona are all owned in part or in total by their fans.

The support for English Premier League teams is part of the cultural cringe which we have done so much, otherwise, to shed.

It is a manifestation of the colonised mind to believe your own culture is inferior. Why else do so many Irish football fans despise their own domestic league?

The response of League of Ireland fans has been understandably to pour scorn on the barstoolers, but shaming fans into attending League of Ireland matches has not worked as a tactic and will not work.

Fans of the domestic league need to stop acting like a persecuted minority in their own country. Instead, they need to cajole, encourage and proselytise.

It is possible to support a League of Ireland and a Premier League side. Many fans do already, but not enough of them judging by the paltry attendances at League of Ireland matches.

It might be worth it for League of Ireland clubs to hand out fliers outside events like the Dublin Decider encouraging barstool fans to take a chance on their own domestic league or even to hand out free tickets on a one-off basis.

Those who had hoped that the League of Ireland would up its marketing game now that it has come under the aegies of the FAI have been sorely disappointed, and the clubs themselves have been pathetic at marketing their own product.

The first thing the FAI should do is admit that the biggest problem facing the domestic game is the stranglehold on the imagination and pockets of Irish football fans exercised by the English Premier League. Somebody has to shout stop.

It will be a long-term project and it will take a generation to change the mindsets of Irish fans who think their behaviour is normal, but a start has to be made.

If the cringeworthy spectacle at the Aviva Stadium last weekend does not give true Irish football fans pause for thought, nothing will.

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