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1 September 2013 Edition

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Sky’s the limit for Irish soccer

Time to give Irish soccer the rugby treatment?

Isn’t it interesting that a sport which pays players an average of £30,000 a week still won’t pay ball boys, mascots and other workers the minimum wage?

HAVE YOU given any thought to the British and Irish Lions in recent weeks? I didn’t think so. The media hype is over; the Sky Sports advertising drive has moved to the English Premiership; the Lions replica kit is now (thankfully) on the discount rail.

Has the Airtricity league or the Danske Bank Premiership in the Six Counties been battling for you attention on TV? I didn’t think so either. We have to make way for unending speculation on the Suarez/Rooney/Bale transfers and the hyping of other overpriced show ponies.

The UEFA transfer window is closing as premiership clubs spend tens of millions of pounds in the race to secure Champions League football or just survive in the cash machine of TV rights and advertising sponsorship that the Premiership has become.

Across Europe, similar scenarios are played out between top clubs. In the United States, the NBA (National Basketball Association) and NFL (National Football League) pre-season are parallel worlds to the English Premiership with multi-million-dollar bids and deals to secure the right combination of players to seal a play-off spot and, maybe in the case of the NFL, a Super Bowl appearance. (Yes, it is weird they call it a world championship. Go, Patriots!)

In late July, Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire owner of the New York Nets basketball team, brought two new players into his team, moving their total annual payroll to over $100million. His player spend last year was $330million. The signing of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett triggered an $83million tax bill designed by the NBA to curb high-spending owners trying to buy success, driving up wages and transfer prices in the process. Any of this sound familiar, Chelsea, Manchester City?

The sports we watch, the teams we support, is it because of advertising, hype and sheer ease of settling in for a Sky Super Sunday that drives our interest? The impact of TV, tie-in advertising, sponsorship of teams, competitions, stadia and even training kits warps our sporting interests.

In 2012, the following three years of English Premiership TV rights were auctioned to Sky and BT for £3billion, a 71% increase on the previous deal. So get ready for more couch time.

Isn’t it interesting that a sport which pays players  an average of £30,000 a week (according to Deloitte & Touche) still won’t pay ball boys, mascots and other workers the minimum wage? In late August, British tax authorities wrote to all the Premiership clubs, warning them about low wages and using unpaid interns.

Low wages is the norm in the English Premiership’s chronically-ill Irish soccer cousin, where the FAI (26 Counties) and IFA (Six Counties) clubs struggle on the brink of bankruptcy, with low attendances and debts that either frustrate club development or are barely serviceable.

In the 26 Counties, the Airtricity League clubs collectively made a small profit in 2012 and this is a positive move from a collective debt of €6.7million in 2007. But with the investment in soccer focused on the Champions’ League, English Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, and France’s Ligue 1, there is a case to be made for abandoning professional soccer in the likes of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and returning to totally amateur leagues.

The other possibility is to follow the initiative of rugby and create your own league franchise as they have with Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian clubs in the Rabo Pro 12. There are only four professional rugby teams on the island and so the money end of the sport is highly profitable for the provinces and the Irish Rugby Football Union. There are 24 teams across the two soccer premierships in Ireland.

Another model of successful amateur sports, organised on an all-Ireland basis, is found in the GAA.

Last year’s county hurling and football championship matches had average attendances of 16,000 people – an attendance level professional soccer teams in Ireland never reach. The GAA has no parasitic international relations siphoning resources and interest away from its domestic competitions. There is also the ‘little’ issue of being based on local communities and having a small whiff of democracy in its decision making.

More than 180,000 people play soccer in the 26 Counties and 25,000 in the Six Counties, according to the FAI and IFA websites. Isn’t it time to switch off Sky, go to the park and watch people, young, old, male and female play?

Soccer is everywhere, not just on the Sky Box.

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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