LOI could learn a few things from the Welsh Premier League

BetweenTheStripes.ie pair, Kieran Burke (left) & Jon Brier (right) pictured with former Carmarthen Town manager, Mark “Jonah” Jones at a WPL game earlier this season. Jones, who oversaw Carmarthen’s shock come-from-behind win against Longford in the UEFA Cup, currently commentates on WPL games for S4C.

BetweenTheStripes.ie pair, Kieran Burke (left) & Jon Brier (right) pictured with former Carmarthen Town manager, Mark “Jonah” Jones at a WPL game earlier this season. Jones, who oversaw Carmarthen’s shock come-from-behind win against Longford in the UEFA Cup, currently commentates on WPL games for S4C.

As many of you may know, earlier this year myself and my Between the Stripes LOI podcast co-host, Jonathan Brier went on a bit of a roadtrip to the picturesque surroundings of Bala in Wales to sample a league similar to our beloved League of Ireland in many ways, the Welsh Premier Division. Situated in a country with a small population where football is not the dominant sport, those who do prefer it as their code of choice generally opt for the glitz and glam of the English Premier League, as opposed to supporting their local sides. I don’t even have to mention the modest stadia or minimal competition prize money to establish just how similar the WPL & LOI are. However, having followed the domestic game in Wales for some time now and off the back of our educational trip to Wales (ok ok, it was a bit of a booze up too), there are definite lessons we can take from the WPL at a time when LOI reform and restructure are such hot topics.

Let’s start with one area that is always heavily scrutinized by followers of the domestic game here in Ireland, that being TV coverage or in many supporters eyes the lack of it. For a league of such modest standing, the WPL enjoys fantastic levels of TV coverage with Welsh speaking broadcaster, S4C championing the league. While the idea of watching LOI with Irish commentary may not be overly popular with some, in Wales the native language is far wider spoken (it was spoken exclusively in Bala where we visited) so it makes sense for S4C to use sport as a tool to draw in viewers who may not be regulars to their programming otherwise. Previously, TG4 did of course broadcast LOI football, often from Galway given its Gaeltacht links and while ideally it would make more sense for the LOI to have a central broadcasting deal with a more mainstream station (ideally RTE given it is free to air), perhaps this relationship with TG4 should be revisited.

However, that is not the main lesson to be taken from S4C’s fantastic coverage of Welsh football. In this digital age where “if it’s not on social media did it really happen at all” is the marketing rule of thumb, S4C are putting our league to shame in terms of match-day content. When S4C broadcast a live game on TV (by the way they make all their upcoming live fixtures available on both their website and the league website months in advance), they also stream it live on their Facebook page with goal clips and major incidents available within seconds on Twitter. On top of this, there is also a highlights show on a Monday, which is also available on YouTube, while perhaps most impressively there are ten Facebook live exclusive matches every season and I’m sure the potential to roll this into a weekly occurrence is more than possible.

When myself & Jon told followers of the Welsh league that up until recently clubs were not allowed to share highlights until a Monday night, there reaction was comical to say the least. And to be honest, even since clubs were given more freedom, I have to say I’ve been disappointed with the lack of relevant content clubs have put out. It’s all well and good posting a fancy highlight reel a few hours after a game but in this era of scroll for the sake of scrolling, is a highlights package really going to make social media users stop and engage with the content for 5-10 minutes? Unlikely, instead you’ll just hit the same niche market you’ve always been aiming to draw in. What clubs need to do, and of course it isn’t as easy as it sounds with equipment, software and volunteers, is deliver INSTANT video content of goals & major incidents, while Facebook/YouTube/Periscope live interviews are something very few clubs have sampled.

Moving away from the broadcast side of things, while the WPL does not have a central kit supplier, the league is sponsored by JD Sports. As a result, every WPL teams kit is available for purchase via the JD Sports website. This not only benefits clubs financially but it adds a sense of professionalism to the league and makes it feel more mainstream, whereas the only place to buy a kit at some LOI clubs is at a home game, again ensuring only a niche market of potential customers are targeted. A central distribution kit deal is something many people, including John O’Sullivan, have spoken about in the past as a potential idea for the LOI to play with and if this would not only make LOI merchandise easier to come across for supporters but throw the league into the spotlight on the website of a world wide sportswear giant, then of course it is something that should be further examined.

Finally, league structure and potential tweaks are something we hear discussed almost annually in the LOI but in the WPL, they look to have absolutely nailed it with an extended play-off series for the final Europa League qualification place. While we can squabble all day over the merits of fairness and if a team that finishes x amount of points behind another deserves a shot at Europe, the levels of excitement and media coverage these games bring are simply gold-dust for a league fighting for every column inch.

In Wales, the champions of the Welsh Premier League qualify for the Champions League. The second placed team qualifies for the Europa League. The teams in places 3 to 7 then play-off for the second Europa League spot, while the Welsh Cup winners also qualify. If the winners of the Welsh Cup have already qualified for Europe via their league placing or if the Welsh Cup winners have finished in a playoff position, then the remaining four sides contest the playoff. All in all, almost everyone has something to play for come seasons end, with the sides at the bottom battling to avoid relegation. During our trip to Wales, which was on the final round of regular season fixtures, we witnessed Caernarfon Town lose 1-0 to Bala but still qualify for the play-offs thanks to a late goal elsewhere, sparking unrivaled scenes of jubilation in a packed out away end. Having only been promoted last season, for a club like Caernarfon to come within a few games of European football shows the potential for growth the play-off series gives the smaller clubs, given it is a league dominated by the financial clout of TNS for the best part of a decade.

Given the current debate within Irish football on the possibility of spreading European prize-money around the league, perhaps an extended European play-off series could help address this situation with increased revenue for clubs via bigger attendances and merchandise sales, while the possibility of different clubs qualifying for Europe each season would help spread the Euro pot of gold around.

Is the Welsh league perfect? Of course not, in fact LOI attendances are far more impressive even when you take populations into account, not to mention the standard of football here far eclipses anything our Welsh counter-parts can offer (don’t mention TNS V Bohs) but the time has now arrived for the League of Ireland to start looking outside the box in terms of promotion and on-field entertainment and for a small league, our Welsh friends are certainly ticking those boxes.

Do you have a comment on Kieran’s article? Comment below or drop us a tweet to @BetweenStripes. You can find us on Facebook.com/BetweenTheStripes while we still do that old thing called email at BetweenTheStripes1924@gmail.com