“Financially, it’ll be a huge pressure on the clubs and then obviously there’ll be pressure on fixtures down the road.”
League of Ireland clubs could face a massive financial strain and an uncertain future should the Coronavirus [Covid-19] shutdown last beyond the next couple of weeks.
The FAI have announced that all football activity that comes under their jurisdiction will be suspended for the next two weeks. On Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar detailed major actions to combat the Covid-19 outbreak, that has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. The measures, which came into force at 6 pm on Thursday evening, will have a major impact on Irish society over the coming weeks.
Until March 29, all schools, colleges, childcare facilities and cultural institutions will be closed. People are advised to work remotely where possible. Shops, restaurants and cafés will remain open, but people should practice social distancing. Indoor gatherings of 100 people, and outdoor gatherings of 500 people, are to be cancelled.
Breaking news this afternoon! https://t.co/4tnAY92B0J
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) March 12, 2020
That last point will have a direct impact on Irish sport and the League of Ireland, as clubs rely overwhelmingly on matchday revenue to operate. There is no TV money for the League of Ireland and the majority of expenditure, around 50 per cent, is on wages.
The next few weeks, and possibly months, will be testing times for those involved in Irish soccer. According to former Cork City manager John Caulfield, Irish clubs’ reliance on gate receipts leaves them in a vulnerable position in the current extraordinary circumstances.
“The majority of clubs rely so much on the gates,” Caulfield told Pundit Arena.
“The league will be suspended for two weeks and rightly so. It’s really a scenario of how long this will go on for. If everything was back to normal in two weeks, clubs could handle that. The problem will be the knock-on effect, if it goes longer, which obviously it could.
“Would clubs survive for a couple of weeks? Certainly, but I think after it would become a major issue. Clubs have matured, they’d have more of a long-term plan now. But, ultimately, there’s no TV money for League of Ireland clubs. Ideally, you’d hope that clubs would be fine in such a way that they could survive for over a year, but that wouldn’t be the case here.”
Should the shutdown extend into the summer, Irish clubs could also miss out on European money, which has been a game-changer for sides such as Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers over the last decade.
However, should European competition remain suspended, and not return by the summer, Ireland’s representatives – Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Derry City – would be without vital money gained from competing in Uefa tournaments. On Friday, Uefa opted to suspend this season’s Champions League and Europa League. It is unclear when the tournaments will resume.
Caulfield, who won the Premier Division with Cork as manager in 2017, and the FAI Cup in 2016 and 2017, said that the money gained from these showcase matches can significantly boost a club’s funds. He also said that clubs factor in these games when drawing up a budget ahead of each season.
“All the clubs that qualify for Europe, their focus and their budgets are based on the fact they have qualified for Europe,” Caulfield said.
“We just have to wait and see worldwide what will happen with football. Because obviously teams that qualified for Europe, would be entitled to their European money from last year. But clubs like Dundalk and (Shamrock) Rovers would be hoping to go further in the competition, which would bring in more money.
“If those games weren’t played, or the tournament was called off, or if there’s anything like that, well then the long-term effects would be huge. The problem for everyone it’s just so much uncertainty. It’s impossible in Ireland for teams to play behind closed doors at any point, because, from a gate point of view, clubs are just so reliant on their gates.”
The impact of the shutdown will also extend beyond monetary concerns for clubs. Waterford FC announced on Friday afternoon that they have suspended training for 12 days. The League of Ireland Premier Division side will re-assess the situation on March 24.
In the meantime, their players may have to train alone to retain their fitness ahead of the league, hopefully, returning to action in two weeks. To complicate matters further, several commercial gyms have closed until March 29.
Caulfield faced a similar situation in 2001, during the outbreak of the Foot and Mouth disease, when, for seven weeks, Cork City players had to train alone.
“We weren’t allowed to train, everything was pulled at the time,” he said.
“It was surreal, we were all training on our own to keep up our main fitness. When the league started back, we got together for maybe 10 days beforehand, like a mini-preseason. I think there were seven games left to play that year, so it was different (than the current season). At least on this occasion, it’s only the start of the league, there are possibilities to catch-up. But it’s different this time, it’s a much more serious scenario.
“If everything was back to normal in two weeks, clubs could survive that, the problem will be the knock-on effect, if it goes longer, which obviously it looks like it will.”
The sporting shutdown has been extended throughout Europe, which has seen the spread of COVID-19 accelerate in recent days. While clubs in richer leagues, will be immune from the suspension of play, Irish clubs are effectively cash-businesses. The coming weeks, and possibly months, could highlight the precarious nature of the highest level of soccer in the country, as well as the need for television money and more centralised support from the FAI and the government.
On Wednesday, the FAI, the PFAI and League of Ireland representatives met to discuss contingency plans. On Thursday, it was reported by The42 that the PFAI had been liaising with FIFPro, which represents 65,000 professional footballers throughout the world, to come up with a plan to navigate the shutdown.
It was also reported that the PFAI could make an application to Uefa for €1m in an attempt to ensure the wages of League of Ireland players are paid over the coming weeks and possibly months. Any financial help would be a godsend for clubs.
In the meantime, supporters can still financially contribute to League of Ireland clubs during the suspension of play. Clubs are still selling season-tickets online, club shops remain open and some clubs, including Cork City, are selling match-tickets that can be used when games are re-scheduled. Some clubs, such as Shamrock Rovers, are also selling matchday programmes for the games that were meant to be played this weekend.
These are extraordinary times, and no-one knows when normal life can resume. When it does though, one hopes it will be in a sporting landscape unaffected by the current shutdown.