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Ireland and Moldova only countries left in the dark

FAI under pressure to find viable solution to a unique problem

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In the dark: Tallaght Stadium, home of Shamrock Rovers, lies empty and unused along with all the League of Ireland grounds. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In the dark: Tallaght Stadium, home of Shamrock Rovers, lies empty and unused along with all the League of Ireland grounds. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

In the dark: Tallaght Stadium, home of Shamrock Rovers, lies empty and unused along with all the League of Ireland grounds. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The debate around the return of League of Ireland has naturally been framed by developments in team sports on these islands. But there is a flaw in that line of thinking, which is in danger of underestimating the consequences of calling for the 2020 season to be shelved.

English Premier League outfits and the lower leagues are deliberating over the status of a campaign that was nearing completion. Debates around contentious decisions are essentially being influenced by attempts to structure next season.

While there are tensions in European rugby, the small cohort of leading nations are likely to move in step as they operate off the same calendar.

Meanwhile, the GAA does not have to deal with players who rely on the games for a living. With no international element, they have the freedom to move at their own pace.

Football is another animal. There are 55 member nations within UEFA, with 12 of them operating summer leagues. For these dozen countries, the Covid-19 crisis presented an issue when it came to kicking off seasons, not concluding them.

As it stands, just two nations are in the dark about the next step. One is Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, where the FA is consulting with clubs on the ideal method of resuming training and games.

And then there's Ireland, where we continue to go round in circles with opinions on return dates fluctuating. We've gone from July to September and now August in terms of best case behind closed doors (BCD) scenarios.

What about the others? Belarus have carried on regardless. The rest are exploring BCD or limited capacity solutions with the Faroe Islands back in action last weekend. Estonia is on course for later this month, with Lithuania kicking off then or in early June, the same month that Norway, Sweden, Iceland and state funded Kazakhstan are working towards with Finland eyeing July 1.

Latvia is behind its Baltic neighbours in terms of planning, but there are suggestions they will be training next week so that's significant.

The virus may not have taken hold in some of those countries to the extent which it has here, and they don't have a Boris led basketcase on their doorstep, but the reason that Ireland is lagging behind on troubleshooting runs deeper.

In truth, the real answer can be found in UEFA's European Club Benchmarking Report, a document released in January detailing how clubs in leagues make their money.

Based on 2018 figures, the key stat for Ireland is that 28pc of income comes from spectators attending games, a bigger amount than any of the other summer leagues. Furthermore, 42pc comes from the commercial heading, which includes fundraising, match sponsorship, and a number of other revenue generators that would be curtailed or just erased in a BCD world.

The 16pc from UEFA is eaten up by the elite minority although that tally also includes solidarity payments.

Clubs don't receive a penny of TV money, although the FAI do and those legacy contracts are an obstacle to plans to run a streaming service to compensate for shutting up shops.

Comparisons with the other summer leagues are striking. Sweden do have the next highest reliance on gate income (24pc) but they also have a TV deal worth €18m which is 12pc of their income.

Norway's TV percentage is 17pc with gates accounting for just 15pc of their cash. In Finland, it's 5pc from TV and 17pc from gates. Iceland stand at 5pc from TV and a lowly 4pc from gates, with their Association in a position to heavily fund their clubs.

Sponsors

Estonia, Moldova, Lithuania and Latvia don't have domestic TV deals. In Latvia, ticket sales stand at 2pc of overall income and it's 1pc for the other trio. Clearly, they lean on benefactors or vital sponsors.

This is why the League of Ireland is in real bother. While crowds are low in the context of the other major team sports, they are big enough to just about sustain operations but it's a neverending battle.

The €9m spend on wages in Ireland as per the UEFA report amounts to around 63pc of total club revenue.

Scandinavian leagues have a similar wage to overall income graph but wouldn't be able to manage it without TV cash. They also have a more even spread of wages across the league whereas on these shores there's a major gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

For clubs starved of European monies, the need for gate receipts and fundraising is greater than the overall national percentage.

Hence, they can't commit to BCD football without assurances of how it will be paid for. Doubts hang over the level of a support package that will be available fromFIFA. The logistics and value of streaming is unclear. Their gripes are valid, and the FAI will have to pull a rabbit from the hat - possibly in the form of continued state support on wages - to win over sceptics. Risk will be a factor.

But giving up on 2020 could also leave Ireland very exposed.

There will be no comparable Covid-19 precedent on contracts; in winter leagues the protagonists will already have received most of what they were owed for a year. No other summer league is talking about writing off 2020 at an early stage, but there is a movement that way here.

The roadmap published by government in conjunction with the advice of public health officials indicated they will permit games in August and clarity is being sought on terms and conditions.

At this remove, it seems governing bodies will have a choice and the FAI may throw it to the clubs.

Should they say no for reasons that are finance based - as opposed to a public health diktat - then they may find themselves in a legal conundrum. Serious negotiation with players would be required to plot a way out of it and even then we don't know for sure that stadiums will be able to open fully from 2021.

Nobody saw this health crisis coming, but the League of Ireland's underlying ailments have left it particularly exposed.

If the FAI can't find a viable way to sell a HSE sanctioned comeback to the clubs with gaping holes in their budget, this could get very messy.