Almost as constant as the financial mishaps are the calls for reform of the league. This is despite the league going through significant changes every few years. The recent Conroy Report is the latest catalyst for soul-searching within the league. The report, prepared by Declan Conroy at the request of the Football Association of Ireland, is based on a wide consultation with clubs and stakeholders within the league. It makes for sober reading, despite the claims of strong brand recognition and a solid foundation for the league throughout. The report should be read by all who care about the sport in Ireland.
There is however a significant inconsistency that, in my view, undermines the key recommendations within the report. The most fundamental goes to the heart of the need for sustainability in the league. There can be no doubt that sustainability of the league (and member clubs) is the most important objective right now. This is why the proposed league structure would seem, at least to me, to work against clubs developing the medium to longer-term strategic plans necessary for their sustainability. Short-termism, rampant in football, is inconsistent with sustainability for an (at best) semi-professional league facing the circumstances of the League of Ireland.
The report recommends that the current two division structure should remain in place, with the exception that the two divisions should have 10 teams - rather than the current 12 team Premier and 8 team First Divisions. To facilitate this, in the 2016 division the bottom three clubs would be relegated (that is 25% of the clubs in the division) and the ninth placed club would play against the second placed team in the First Division in a relegation/promotion decider. That means potentially a third of the Premier Division teams could be relegated in one season. This creates a huge incentive for clubs to invest hugely (and potentially beyond their means) to maintain their status in the Premier Division in 2016. If they fail the consequences could be drastic, because of the huge gap in interest between the Premier and First Divisions. The report (on Page 16) provides data on attendances by Division for the last three full seasons. The table below shows this data, but includes a column dividing attendances by number of games to show average attendance per game.
As an aside, it's worth noting that if the current positions in the Premier Division were the same as at the end of the 2016 season (ignoring that one of these four will be replaced by Wexford Youths this year) the relegated clubs would be Limerick FC, Sligo Rovers, Galway United and Drogheda United - leaving no Premier Division team west of the Shannon and four of the clubs in the greater Dublin area. This also must be questionable from a sustainability perspective - though this is the nature of sporting competition.
The 10-team Premier Division in place from the 2017 season would also include a split between the top 6 and bottom 4, with the bottom club relegated and the tenth and eleventh teams playing in a round robin with second and third in the First Division. Two of those four clubs go up or stay up in the Premier Division. This means that each season 40% of Premier clubs are cut adrift from the top teams (with the prospect of losing revenue from games against top sides) and potentially 30% of clubs could be relegated. The top 6 clubs would be playing for the title and entry to the Europa League (with a play-off between teams positioned 3 to 5). On the other side, in the First Division, the 7 clubs not in the promotion round robin have little to play for in the latter parts of the season.
The motivation for this structure arises from the need to keep interest in league games through out the season. The report suggests attendance would be boosted by "more interesting games, more at stake, more 'occasions'" (page 17). There is a tension however between increasing the number of games with something at stake while at the same time encouraging clubs to develop a medium to longer-term strategic horizon - particularly where what is at stake is relegation to the nowhere land that is the First Division.
There are other approaches. On this blog I proposed an alternative MLS-style conference structure which increased the number of matches that had something at stake by introducing play-offs. This could be described as carrot approach rather than a stick approach. This would mean removing relegation - at least for a number of years - to provide clubs with certainty around the worst possible outcome each season. Each season would involve games against the top clubs but may not involve a play-off place. This means that clubs could plan appropriately, invest in structures including underage teams, player development, and grounds. In the current climate, League of Ireland clubs are not concerned about keeping themselves healthy - they are concerned with staying alive for the rest of each season. The only way to promote long-term sustainability is to provide clubs with some element of certainty and this means being more radical than the two-division structure suggested in the Conroy Report.