League of Ireland clubs need another huge cash injection to stay viable in 2021

The financial return from the WatchLOI streaming project has been "disappointingly low"
League of Ireland clubs need another huge cash injection to stay viable in 2021

FAI interim CEO Gary Owens, left, and League of Ireland director Mark Scanlon on arrival at Dáil Éireann. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The League of Ireland will need a major cash injection of at least €4m to make the Airtricity League viable in 2021, an Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 has been told.

Interim FAI CEO Gary Owens explained the gravity of the situation facing the clubs in the national league and the FAI itself on Friday, and why the sport and others desperately need a return of spectators to stadiums in order to stave off financial ruin.

Between them, the FAI, IRFU, and GAA project losses of €75m in 2020 with further hits in the pipeline in the next calendar year.

“This year we supported them to the tune of three-and-a-half million and so, in our submission, we will be looking for around the same next year to financially support the clubs and which would basically keep them viable,” Owens said on Friday morning.

Mark Scanlon, director of the Airtricity League, added that the €3.5m used to support the league in 2020 was actually based on a reduced 18-game season and explained that a larger sum again would therefore be needed if the competition returns to its normal 36-game length in 2021.

The FAI's financial woes are well-known. Poor governance left them needing a bank bailout at the start of the year but Owens made it clear that the Association and its senior clubs are in dire need of further assistance as a result of the pandemic and the closing of grounds.

“The only income really the League of Ireland clubs get is through fans. That represents about 80% of the income. At the moment, what we are doing with the League of Ireland clubs is presenting them with three scenarios, one with fans back in the grounds, one without any fans at all, and one basically mid-stream somewhere between the two.

“We are trying to present that in terms of what financial support we may be able to provide. Obviously the feedback on what we submitted is going to be important in relation to that.

“But I must say I am worried about the impact on League of Ireland clubs. It will be significant if we can't have fans in and we are going to have to have some contingency plans around some of the clubs.

“Clubs that qualify for Europe will have a better opportunity, clubs that don't will really struggle next year. We have enough visibility this year but going into 2021 it will be difficult without any fans in the ground and without any financial support.”

Clubs had affiliation fees waived and received aid with Covid-19 safety protocols from the FAI but Owens also revealed that the financial return from the WatchLOI streaming project has not been the source of alternative income some would have hoped for.

“Part of what we have been doing with the resumption of the League of Ireland is actually test what potentially we can do through streaming and that has been disappointingly low, to be honest,” said Owens who is not pursuing the CEO role on a full-time basis.

“It's in line with the budget that we have put in place but it was an alternative to generate some income for the League of Ireland clubs who got some income from that.”

Owens was speaking alongside his counterparts in the GAA and IRFU and all three organisations have come together to formulate a way in which larger crowds can be accommodated safely at stadia in a Covid-19 environment.

All of them are heavily reliant on gate receipts in terms of financial models and, while Dublin is on the verge of a stricter lockdown for now, it is also due to host a number of delayed Euro 2020 games at the Aviva Stadium next summer.

Getting fans back in stadiums is paramount sooner rather than later and Uefa will hold a pilot event next Thursday when they allow 20,000 spectators into the Puskas Arena in Hungary when Bayern Munch meet Seville in the annual Super Cup fixture.

“Next week's game is going to be quite important,” said Owens. “I was on a Uefa conference call last Wednesday and they are still expecting fans to be attending games (at the Euros) next June so we obviously have to work here with local government and the expert medical group and NPHET. We will have to feed that in.

“That's why I feel next week is important in terms of the pilot test for 20,000. They are doing that on the basis that they have an eye on the Euros next year. So as things stand today, we are still expecting to hold the Euros here next year with fans and we have a challenge in trying to convince everybody that that will happen.”

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