Do new wealthy owners see Dundalk as a project or a plaything?
Nothing would have reassured like a multi million euro investment into Oriel Park
Fans had hoped for an investment into Oriel Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
They might have made the right noises but only time will tell for sure whether the wealthy new owners of Dundalk see the club as a project or a plaything.
The lack of any real detail at Sunday’s public meeting means that the questions about their motives and the scale of their ambition for the club persist with the lack of a clear plan for Oriel Park - together with a timeframe for its implementation the most obvious disappointment. They can talk all they want about being in this for the long haul but nothing would have reassured like a multi million euro investment in the club’s crumbling infrastructure, something the owners could not easily walk away from.
Or if they did, at least the club would have something to show for them having been involved, with a new stadium potentially providing revenue streams that might help sustain it into the future. As it is, the suggestion is that they will invest enough money to win leagues here then generate a return from European runs. Given the growing pot of prize money available in the Champions and Europa League qualifying rounds, it is not that the plan is so far-fetched as to be unbelievable.
It is more that there is complete uncertainty as to just what it is they actually hope to achieve and how much they are willing to spend in order to achieve it.
The former owners seem to be onboard as does Stephen Kenny and it is understandable that that seems to have been good enough for a good many of the supporters who turned up to hear what the new owners had to say.
But in a league where clubs have generally found that fans are better being involved, the sense here was that the supporters are being kept at arms length with the owners, full of confidence it is clear about their football and financial acumen, essentially telling people to trust them and enjoy the good times. Here’s hoping then.
Clearly the aim is to win the league on a fairly consistent basis but one member of the consortium, Jordan Gardner, suggested that the fallback position is to qualify for Europe every year with progression through two or three rounds then seen as a success.
The lower end of those expectations is probably not, as it happens, a million miles from what the club would have been targeting under the old owners but clearly the hope is that the success of 2016 when Dundalk qualified for the group stages and earned around €7 million in revenue can be repeated. When the new three year cycle kicks in this year, the prize money will be increased and Cork City will be the first Irish champions to benefit from a revised structure that guarantees them at least two bites of the cherry with first round losers in the Champions League now reverting automatically to the second round of the Europa League.
Achieving the ultimate prize of a place in the Champions League group stages will actually be more challenging, though, with the title winners here going up against better resourced clubs, many of whom have been playing this particular game for years, for fractionally fewer places in the business end of the competition due to the greater allocation taken by the biggest leagues. The extra money is not, as it is usually portrayed, a gesture of solidarity; it is intended to make these changes more palatable.
In the latter qualifying rounds, should they get that far, Irish clubs might expect to meet opponents from the likes of Scotland, Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands and Uefa’s most recent benchmarking report shows the scale of the challenge that is involved in going up against the best clubs from those countries.
In the most extreme instance, the top three Dutch teams have average commercial revenues of €39.5 million but the corresponding figure for Scottish, Swedish and Danish sides is €12.4 million, €10 million and €11.1 million respectively. The contributions made by other factors to overall income vary significantly from country to country but gate receipts, transfer revenues, TV money and other income streams all routinely tower over the equivalent figures for the League of Ireland.
While the breakdown of income varies significantly, though, there is generally a broad spread of revenue streams. Doubtless Dundalk’s owners intend to grow every aspect of the club but in the absence of serious levels of domestic prize money, TV rights money and very limited potential for ticket revenue to increase without major investment in facilities, the initial mix will, it seems, rely hugely on owner investment and Uefa prize money.
The clubs need the league to improve as a whole if a genuinely secure and sustainable model is to be built for the game here
It is not a formula that comes with any guarantees or even one that necessarily inspires a huge amount of confidence for the long term unless, that is, the level of support is huge and it is combined with a willingness to suffer the odd summer setback.
John Caulfield has made much over the close season of the need for greater revenues to be extracted from TV but the figures are not hugely encouraging. In each of the four countries mentioned above broadcasters provide between 12 and 17 per cent of club income but here the feeling persists that they cost clubs money by deterring customers from paying at the turnstiles while contributing next to nothing by way of actual cash.
Figures for last year’s RTÉ football coverage shows the station’s live games attracting audiences that are broadly in line with what they were getting almost a decade ago with an average figure of 59,400 for the station’s 12 live league games scarcely suggesting there is a transformative amount of revenue waiting to be squeezed out of broadcasters.
In general, the clubs, it seems clear, need the league to improve as a whole if a genuinely secure and sustainable model is to be built for the game here. There are some promising signs but progress continues to be painfully slow.
In the circumstances it is easy to see why new overseas owners might be impatient and look to steal a lead. The question is whether they can really stay out in front season after season and how long they stick around if the pack catches up.