For those attending League of Ireland games around the country, the news in recent days that attendances for premier division games were up by 27% in the opening 9 games of the season will be no surprise. Football stadiums have been filled out regularly and have been gripped by a buzz not seen in years.
While it is great to see bums in the seats, the benefits are wide-ranging and can boost the local communities and even help the Irish national side. So, we ask what spurred this boost in engagement with domestic football, how local communities can benefit and what is next for what Irish football fans on Twitter affectionately call the #greatestleagueintheworld.
Kieran Burke has been involved in League of Ireland football for years and is the founder of the media outlet Between the Stripes. He sat down with LadBible Ireland to discuss the positive news about increased attendance and the state of Irish domestic football.
Asked about the growing interest in the league, Kieran said “There seems to be a great appetite for the League of Ireland across nearly all the grounds at the moment which is great to see.
There has definitely been an uptake in attendance at a lot of clubs that probably haven't seen that kind of level of support in the last 10 years, there is definitely something going on.”
The post-COVID-19 bounce has been partly suspected for the changes but Kieran suspects there is more to it. He explained “Stephen Kenny being the Ireland manager gave the League of Ireland a bit more respect and people are waking up to the quality on their doorstep”.
But mainly he suspects there is “a bit of delusion about the Premier League at the moment, it's very detached from reality,” adding that for fans “when they meet in the pub beforehand it’s a bit of craic when you watch it on television you don't get that same experience.”
That has been echoed by many new fans who have found themselves regularly attending the League of Ireland for the first time this season. James Carroll has been attending several Bohs games for the first time this season.
He said that when you follow the English Premier League “you feel like you don’t really support a team, so I wanted to try to support Irish football because then you feel like you actually support rather than just watch.”
More than 55,000 people have attended SSE Airtricity Men's First Division games so far in 2023 with the average attendance rising again.— League of Ireland (@LeagueofIreland) April 17, 2023
Full details below. #LOI
However, extra people at games still leave plenty of issues to be fixed. Kieran Burke said, “We would much rather see any extra revenue coming into the league through attendances invested into stadiums because that's the biggest issue within the league right now, they need to have bigger capacities and better facilities.”
While clubs will get more revenue from ticket sales, far more investment is needed to help the league realise its full potential. Kieran said, “The clubs and the league need to get together and start putting pressure on the government to support them.”
Finally, as the national side currently works towards qualifying for the 2024 European Championships, many see the potential the League of Ireland has in aiding the Irish squad. Several players including the highly rated Evan Ferguson started their careers in the league and better coaching and facilities can only aid the future of Irish football.
Investment in football clubs is so important because they are so much more than a team. Clubs can be a major part of the community and give local businesses a major boost. Part of that is clubs making the match day experience more than just a game of football.
Kieran praised Bohs for reaching out to the community and for making an effort on match days to run events and make it a special evening for fans.
The buzz around the leagues has gone beyond matchdays and there is plenty of interest in media outlets and on social media. In fact, this month Virgin Media televised their first-ever game this month off the back of a growing hunger for live matches on television.
Kieran pointed out that “There are a lot of really good independent media outlets like Between the Stripes which have championed the League of Ireland, we have really been ramming home the message to get out and support your local team, give it a chance, and more and more people are doing that and learning what they were missing.”
So, is this season another false dawn or the start of something really special? Those who have been around the league through it all like Kieran have worked tirelessly to help the public discover the magic of the #greatestleagueintheworld. New fans are discovering that magic and if it is truly the beginning of a new era for Irish domestic football, the future can be very bright for the clubs, the national side and the local communities which are the lifeblood of the beautiful game.