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Has Sky Sports killed the League of Ireland?

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It seems that only English football can lift Irish fans spirits at present. No longer is a Dublin derby between Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers a rivalry sufficient enough to grab people’s attention. The world has changed; society has changed with it and people’s horizons are being broadened all the time. The English Premier League, through Sky, is doing this.

The link has been broken, and a youngster’s aspiration of playing for Shamrock Rovers or Shelbourne invariably means that he won’t get to play for Ireland. If you want to represent your country, you have to go beyond the League of Ireland and play for English clubs. No longer is the League of Ireland a point to aim for: players have to seek farther and go higher and, in the process, the nails are being hammered into the coffin of the League by Sky.

Children growing up playing football want to make it on the big stage. That big stage isn’t Tolka Park or Dalymount, it’s Anfield or Old Trafford. Every weekend we see these colossal stadia across England, packed to the rafters, illuminated with the shine of decadence and football riches. This is the lifestyle we dream of. It is no longer seen as an achievement to play at local grounds where you can almost hear what people are saying in the surrounding decrepit stands.

Sky’s coverage is second to none. This, however, affects everyone’s mindset of football in Ireland. The FAI power brokers, who run the league, are losing control of themselves. The League’s job is to manage the League and develop that League. It is to develop association football within that League. It is not to develop association football overall. The League of Ireland will never have the financial capacity to compete with the glamour and glitz of the English Premier League. It must be advertised in a different manner.

The FAI must realise that Sky is maintaining dominance of football in Ireland by broadcasting a foreign league. It is too late for blind ignorance of that fact. This has brought about the change to switch to a summer season so the league fixtures would not clash with the majority of the English Premier League matches.

This may be seen as defeatist, but it is evidential now that the English Premier League has a stranglehold on the majority of football fans in the country. The League’s continued existence is something of a miracle. There is no tangible connection between the League of Ireland and the casual football fan anymore. No matter what the League does, Sky has the money, power, and most importantly the control over the casual football fan in Ireland.

The FAI are more concerned with securing broadcasting rights for the National team’s fixtures on Sky, rather than improving the coverage of the League of Ireland. This is a result of the influence Sky has on football broadcasting in Ireland. No matter what the League of Ireland do, they are still left out in the cold away from the warmth of the insular FAI in Abbotstown.

Daire Whelan, an Irish sports journalist comments that: “Broadcast rights to sporting events are spiralling out of control: 1992 was the year Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports took over the Premiership for £305 million, and within a decade broadcast rights to these games had soared to a value of £1 billion. Sports markets are following a trend set in the United States, where the rights to the NFL, NBA, and MLB, are on an upward scale in the billions, while at events such as the SuperBowl advertisers could be charged as much as $2 million for a thirty-second commercial slot.” It’s extortion.

Brian Moore, an English sports journalist, argues that point by saying that: “as Sky has no control over the administration of football, it is innocent. Strictly speaking that is true, but the effects flow from Sky’s actions and they have to shoulder some responsibility, however indirectly. You cannot claim to have saved football and deny the inconvenient consequences.”

If Sky succeeds in its quest to deregulate sports broadcasting it will effectively become a monopoly broadcaster because of its financial position. The BBC cannot increase its bidding power and the failure of ITV Digital and Setanta shows that any other broadcaster would need billions of pounds to challenge Sky. Even so, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that Sky would not increase the cost of sports viewing further.

But the high cost of viewing the English Premier League on Sky rather than paying the most affordable admission fee of €15 is still preferred option of most football fans in Ireland. Sky has worked hard on presentation to satisfy the armchair supporter by including in its innovative coverage varied camera angles and intricate replay techniques that provide their audience with views that are not available to most in the stadium. For most, the choice of the English Premier League on Sky or attending a live League of Ireland match is a no-brainer.

The 'Dublin Dons' idea was not welcomed by League of Ireland fans.

The ‘Dublin Dons’ idea was not welcomed by League of Ireland fans.

Another aspect of how influential Sky’s coverage of football in Ireland was seen in the proposed creation of the ‘Dublin Dons’. The then Wimbledon football club owner, Sam Hamann, was looking into the possibility of relocating his team to Dublin. A proposition which was most ambitious.

The public face of the campaign in Ireland was Eamon Dunphy, he was leading the charge to bring an English football team to Dublin to play against other Premiership teams. This shows how much of an influence the English Premier League has had on the lives of Irish sports fans. However, to the defiant League of Ireland fans this was the final straw.

Without Sky and the English Premier League, League of Ireland stadia would, naturally, be overflowing with supporters. The very thought of allowing an English football team to be based in Ireland, where the home league was struggling to survive, was unfathomable.

The plans for the Dublin Dons ran as follows. The £100 million project would provide for: the building of a 50,000 all-seater stadium at Neilstown; Clondalkin, the provision of road and rail links to the stadium; the installation of all safety and security features, such as surveillance cameras, etc. Wimbledon claimed to have the backing of 18 out of the 22 League of Ireland clubs, but no evidence of this is available.

In 1997, Pat Dolan wrote in the Sunday Tribune that: “The game of football is the most popular globally, purely because it transcends social background, sex, colour, creed, age, or nationality. People, supporters, are the integral fabric of football. If advocates of this scheme put commercial gains ahead of people and supporters, what is the future for football?”

It seems, thanks to Sky, the future of football in Ireland is supporting the English Premier League and turning our back on the homely traditions of the League of Ireland. However, glamour is a perception, the reality is something different.

People in Ireland are naive about what the professional game in England entails, how hard it is to go over there and survive. That’s why a strong League of Ireland is needed. The League of Ireland is viewed by many footballers as a safety net if they do not make it in England. Therein lays the problem. Like a blanket to a child, Sky will be omnipresent in the lives of football fans in Ireland, and there is a certain soothing comfort in that.

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