RTÉ's head of sport Declan McBennett says that the SSE Airtricity League's new streaming service should be given a “fair wind” before judgements are made on whether there is a large enough appetite for League of Ireland football on our screens.
The WatchLOI service has been put together by the FAI, RTÉ, and GAAGO, and the national broadcaster will have cameras and commentary teams at every game through to the season's end.
Season passes went on sale last week at a price of €55 – roughly a euro per game - for supporters in Ireland and €69 for the rest of the world. Individual matches can be accessed for €5.
RTÉ's coverage of the league has come in for considerable criticism down the years. McBennett said last week that this latest development would be proof of just how much demand there is for the domestic game. The phrase "no excuses" was used but he was more circumspect in his take on Tuesday morning.
There is, he said, no target number being envisaged, or aimed for, in terms of take-up.
“People get obsessed with the numbers before something is even given birth to so what we need to do is be realistic and approach it in a fair manner and give it a fair wind,” he said in an interview with Sport for Business.
“I see some of the commentary that's out there the last 24 hours even saying this will take a couple of years to bed down, that you can't judge it on the initial period.
“I think that's fair. You can make some initial assessments with regard to the initial period. There is an element whereby the footballing family, which is much broader than the League of Ireland family, will hopefully engage with this for the sake of the clubs and the players and everybody involved but there is no target number involved.”
McBennett made the point that we are now living in very different and uncertain economic times, something which will have repercussions for those producing this sort of content and those among the target audience who are being asked to dip into their pockets to digest it.
RTÉ are facing into a hectic period of live sport as long as a second wave of Covid-19 and resultant shutdown can be avoided. The window stretching from October 23 to December 20 looks especially intense with 45-50 live events planned by the broadcaster.
As for WatchLOI, it was put to McBennett that this may be a glimpse into a new era of broadcasting given this is the launch of a paid-for streaming service in conjunction with a national free-to-air broadcaster which will still be screening some live Airtricity Leagues games through its usual channels.
His response was that this was very much a “2020 solution to a 2020 problem” and that any thoughts as to what it might all mean for the future of sports broadcasting in a wider sense on this island will have to be for another day.
“I don't think anybody has looked at this realistically beyond the 2020 scenario. We will know an awful lot later this week in terms of how many people subscribe to it, how many season ticket holders engage, and how many people come to the service right up to the end of November and the FAI Cup. Then everybody can sit back and have a look.
“In the same way the FAI will be looking at how this works for them, I think the GAA's county boards and broadcasters will be looking at it. This is not TV replicated in a streaming environment. You can't do that. You are talking about two fundamentally different animals in terms of the production.”
The domestic season kicks back into gear this Friday when Derry City host Sligo Rovers at the Brandywell at 5.45pm. Dundalk and St Patrick's Athletic meet at Oriel Park two hours later.