Robust Media Coverage Can Make the League of Ireland Thrive

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Eir’s LOI Weekly podcast brings us closer towards reaching the level of consistent national media coverage which all domestic football leagues require, writes Aaron Gallagher.

“I’ve been supporting the league 20 seasons and I can never remember a buzz like there is at the moment. I think we have reached a revolution in the game thanks to Dundalk.”

Those were the words of journalist Johnny Ward in anticipation of the new League of Ireland season getting underway.

The medium broadcasting the soundbite was a podcast, somewhat a revolutionary mode of communication in the last decade, and the podcast itself was LOI Weekly — a new venture of Eir and Indepedent.ie

It presents another voice rising up to be heard on a topic few sporting fans in Ireland care about: domestic football. But in providing that voice it not only reinforces the current fanbase that what they are watching is significant and worth talking about, it draws new fans into the conversation.

That is the style most if not all sports podcasts have taken in recent years: the casual roundtable discussion pioneered by Off the Ball and made the norm by the likes of James Richardson and the Guardian’s Football Weekly, as well as Second Captains.

The setup succeeds in its format of recreating the feeling that you are in the snug of your local and discussing the game with your mates afterwards over a few quiet drinks. It allows the listener to be a part of that dialogue, inviting you to eavesdrop.

In this instance the topic of conversation is League of Ireland football. Journalist Dan McDonnell and Ward are joined by established figures in the league like Damian Lynch and features exclusive interviews with the league’s players and managers which their media duties entail (episode one featured Shamrock Rovers captain Ronan Finn, Galway United manager Shane Keegan and Waterford FC director Pat Fenlon).

Its inception ahead of the 2017 campaign adds to the gradual movement of the league to enter regular mainstream coverage across newly developing media platforms. Ten years ago there was no website or podcast dedicated towards covering the league: now there is a plethora.

The league is slowly bucking the trend of all media to transgress online as opposed to in print. With newspaper circulations down quarter on quarter, although unimaginable, the League of Ireland will one day exist solely via online platforms.

Eir and a changing of the broadcasting guard

The podcast is launched with the backing of Eir Sport, who, combined with RTE will show a total of 28 games this season on national television.

Eir received repeated recognition from the League of Ireland community for its coverage of the league, especially during Dundalk’s European run which saw Stephen Kenny’s side get to the UEFA Champions League play-offs and become just the second Irish side to ever qualify for the Europa League.

Eir broadcasted all six of Dundalk’s Europa League group-stage games alongside regular Premier Division fixtures. It uploaded goals onto its Twitter feed throughout these pinnacle games, with Robbie Benson’s injury time goal to secure the Lilywhites passage into the play-off against BATE Borisov at Tallaght Stadium receiving 170 retweets.

This gave the league something which it has not had enough of in years gone by: a platform and access to outsiders who would not have watched the league before.

Eir were onto a winner earning the rights to Dundalk’s historic run in European competition. But they have taken it a step further and have committed even more this season towards its coverage of the domestic league, where RTE have remained stagnant.

On top of the 28 live games broadcast between the national broadcaster and Eir, RTE will continue its weekly highlights programme Soccer Republic. However its previous time slot of 11.05pm has been pushed later to 11.15pm on Monday nights.

This move pegs the league back and reinforces the widely held belief in fan’s minds that the domestic league does not matter to the state broadcaster given its rugby and GAA highlights programmes are both shown at peak viewing times between 7pm and 10pm.

It is made worse in the context that its retired Premier League highlights programme was given the preferred slot instead of domestic coverage. 11.05pm was never a time that was going to attract new viewers or capture the imagination of children — because they were all asleep — adding an extra 10 minutes later towards midnight is adding insult to injury.
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Wider media coverage

Despite misconceptions, the league does in fact receive a wealth of media coverage across television, radio, newspapers, podcasts and online. In total there are over seven dedicated League of Ireland podcasts, some of which are produced to cover solely one team like the All Saints Show for St. Patrick’s Athletic and the Limerick FC Podcast.

There are match reports of every League of Ireland Premier Division fixture in almost every national daily newspaper and websites such as Extratime.ie, Goal.com and The 42 which do the same relentlessly along with player interviews and regular features and columns.

LOI Weekly therefore brings us a small step closer towards reaching the level of consistent national media coverage which all domestic football leagues require in order to sustain themselves and grow to reach new support bases.

The running of the League of Ireland and its administration by the FAI is often ludicrously unprofessional which lends itself to the belief that if the people running the league don’t care for it or have its best interests at heart, then why should I bother giving it the light of day.

However, media coverage conducted by those who know more about the league than any suit or bus-stop live-scoring, sausage sponsoring, “league is cool” brand report fosters the sense of collective community which the League of Ireland has always depended upon.

Most journalists who cover the league do so because long before they took up the dictaphone and the notepad, they stood side by side on the banks of the Tolka, in the Camac and sat in the stands of Turners’ Cross as supporters of their local club.

Representation

A podcast which represents the views of those fellow supporters about issues like Wexford and Waterford rebranding, the worrying state of Athlone Town and the decision to relegate one-quarter of the top-flight to establish two 10-team divisions, gives the league back to those who do care for its best interests — the fans.

Coverage of the new season between newspaper supplements, online features, profiles and radio previews has been unprecedented and, as Ward alluded to, much of this can be brought back to the profile Dundalk has given domestic football to go out and succeed on the big stage.

However as the months wear on this coverage will be drowned out by the editorial priorities of Six Nations, the GAA Championships, the run-in of the Premier League’s final months as well as the UEFA Champions League and Europe’s other domestic leagues.

It will be important to have permanent fixtures which the established League of Ireland fanbase can rely on week on week as a source to feed their addiction.

Something as simple as an hour-long podcast delivered every week proves that what we are watching every week, in spite of paltry attendances, freezing cold weather conditions and unacceptable stadium facilities — conditions which only God or administrators can fix — truly matters.

Aaron Gallagher is the Editor of DCU’s student newspaper The College View and has written for the Irish Independent, Irish Times and TheseFootballTimes. Follow Aaron on Twitter: @Aarongallagher8

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