The League of Ireland is not averse to change. It was recently taken over by the FAI (Football Association of Ireland). There are changes in membership almost every year. The league has shown itself willing to try new structures from time to time to renew interest in the league including switching to summer football in 2003, trying a break in the league with top 6 and bottom 6 playing off for honours or relegation in 1993 and 1994 (long before it was tried in Scotland) and even trying a season with 4 points for an away win, 3 for a home win, 2 for an away draw and 1 for a home draw in 1982. There seems to be a quite radical change attempted every ten years or so.
Perhaps because the league title was more or less decided from an early stage, this year's league lacked a lot of excitement. While there were 3 or 4 clubs in danger of relegation up to a few weeks before the end that turned out to be very predictable as well. There were 4 or 5 teams in the middle of the table who had very little at stake for much of the season, as they were too far from contention for European qualification spots and too far from the relegation zone. The First Division remains a twilight zone. Half of the 8 clubs in the division were well out of contention for most of the season. Since there is no relegation (largely because no club wishes to take a place in the league) it was very hard for these clubs to sustain themselves and supporter interest.
These are difficult economic times, felt as much by the League of Ireland as other business sectors. It may be time for another radical change. And another league which came to the end of it's (regular) season last weekend may hold the answer.
The league should consider switching to the Major League Soccer (MLS) structure in the US. This involves two conferences (East and West). Teams play clubs across the conferences but they would be structured geographically to increase local rivalry. After a regular season of 34 games (this is based on two conferences of 9 teams each - losing two clubs from the current structure) the top 5 clubs in each conference go into play-offs. The top team in each conference gets a home semi-final. The 4th and 5th teams play-off to play the top team. The other semi is between 2nd and 3rd place teams. The conference winners would play in the league final.
A play-off system like this is used in other sports (rugby for the RaboPro12 and the All Ireland League; in GAA with the championship qualifiers and leagues; in most US sports). The traditionalists would suggest it undermines the league so that the best team do not necessarily win the league. This can be overcome by again copying the US system where the Supporters Shield is offered to the best placed team on an overall league basis. The MLS offers two CONCACAF Champions League places - one to the winner of the Supporters Shield and one to the winner of the play-offs (MLS Cup). The League of Ireland could offer the Champions League place to the winner of the overall league with Europa League spots offered to the play-off winners (if different).
There is also the benefit to smaller clubs of a guaranteed visit from a top club each season, potentially when that bugger club is chasing honours and may bring a travelling support. It is clear to see the benefit to clubs like Wexford Youths or Finn Harps of a visit from Shamrock Rovers or Sligo Rovers, rather than the current situation where they must play each other with lack of local or travelling support. It is probably this effect that keeps these clubs locked in the lower reaches of the league.
Of course this is probably also the biggest objection from some clubs to a structure like this since they would rather play each other more often. However, the future of the league needs higher level thinking and it is clear that fans are now often out off by repeated fixtures, particularly among the large proportion of Dublin clubs.
The table below sets out what could be a new conference structure based on geography. The move to franchises that is also a feature of US sport (including MLS) may in time emerge from such a structure. This isn't to be feared as change that makes the league viable is change for the better.
League of Ireland Northern Conference
League of Ireland Southern Conference
St Patricks Athletic
University College Dublin