Covid-19 leaves League of Ireland clubs in a dark place

LEAGUE of Ireland clubs will today ponder some stark options as the Covid-19 pandemic threatens the very future of many.
Covid-19 leaves League of Ireland clubs in a dark place

21 February 2020; A detailed view of the Sligo Rovers crest on a corner flag ahead of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Sligo Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic at The Showgrounds in Sligo. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile
21 February 2020; A detailed view of the Sligo Rovers crest on a corner flag ahead of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Sligo Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic at The Showgrounds in Sligo. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

LEAGUE of Ireland clubs will today ponder some stark options as the Covid-19 pandemic threatens the very future of many.

Most of the 19 clubs across both divisions had only contested four matches when the campaign shuddered to a halt eight days ago in the midst of the global medical crisis.

In contrast to the majority of other leagues, which were lurching towards completion, the summer season put the League of Ireland at an immediate disadvantage in terms of cashflow.

Most sponsorship income arrives in staggered payments, ticket and commercial revenue is reliant on matchday income while contracts of players and staff have to be honoured.

With that relationship suddenly obliterated by the league shutting down indefinitely, personnel will take the biggest hit.

In the grand scheme of things, despite noble gestures like a cohort of League of Ireland graduates yesterday donating €25,000 towards unpaid salaries, the pool currently operating in Ireland will be treated no different to the 400,000 across this country expected to lose their jobs.

Already, the resumption of the season, even by the summer, appears a long shot, meaning a conference call among the clubs today will lean heavily on the fallback option of starting afresh with a new campaign in September.

The FAI last night described their meeting with the National League Executive Committee as “productive” but, for all the strides made by the new broom since the board overhaul, they don’t possess the means to fill the block hole.

To place the crisis in context, it is worth noting that Ireland ranks fourth in Uefa’s list of 55 members reliant on ticket turnover.

It is true that one-off, or even half-yearly, season tickets account for a portion of those sales but the removal of that stream so early in the season deprives clubs of their most precious asset.

Throw into that mix money generated on match-days, such as weekly lotto and bar takings.

In previous incidences of cash drying up due to various events, benefit nights would be organised but the ban on social gatherings eliminates that avenue, either inside or out of a club’s own facilities.

Two of the three north-west top-flight clubs, Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers, are renowned for utilising these means to stay afloat.

That Sligo yesterday became the first full-time club to lay off players, and Harps are keeping matters under review, sounds ominous for the rest.

Sligo last year alone banked over €500,000 from community fundraising, a feat accomplished primarily through the opportunity of locals to view their side in 18 league matches at the Showgrounds every year.

“Our community and supporter base provides extraordinary support that defies logic and helps sustain our club,” read the club’s statement, confirming no staff member, from first-team manager Liam Buckley to the groundsmen, survived the call.

“We recognise the widespread business closures in the area which is very visible in any drive through Sligo town and county. The effects this will have on our community will be significant. We know it will also bring great concern to our fans and sponsors. The road forward from this crisis is not a clear one.”

Even the eternal optimist Niall Quinn admitted there would be no blank cheque from the government on this, especially as rival sports are likewise suffering.

It’s only a month since Basketball Ireland publicly complained of the bailout received by the FAI.

Deputy chief executive Quinn, along with his superior, Gary Owens, have ensured League of Ireland clubs are receiving their solidarity payments from Uefa, prize money from last year and having their exorbitant affiliation fees waived during this month.

Those moves collectively, eased by the FAI’s senior council ratifying loans from Bank of Ireland on Monday, offer breathing space but the scope for additional handouts is extremely tight.

Clubs waiting by the telephone today will be greeted more with proposals for driving revenue rather than one gift for everybody in the audience.

League of Ireland outfits could be within their rights to cite the £1.5m emergency fund made available to Scottish clubs by their association or the £50m relief package announced for English clubs outside of the Premier League in contrast but those monies are drawn from the type of guaranteed income which the League of Ireland doesn’t enjoy after years of neglect.

Uefa, too, could be brought into the equation were it not for the central role they’re playing in the bailout deal.

Only their declarations of future payments for television and grants, otherwise known as promissory notes, convinced Bank of Ireland to lodge €24m in the FAI’s account this week.

Most likely to emerge today is the implementation of the state’s weekly job seeker benefit payment of €203 to players not allowed to kick a ball in training or matches in the foreseeable future.

That’s not even available to those whose football career acts as a second job, a category covering the bulk of the First Division players.

Whatever obstacle it tries to navigate around, football won’t escape the brunt of this episode’s fallout.

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