League of Ireland fans love to debate format changes and potential improvements that could be made to senior football in this country. Their thirst for change is matched perhaps only by Gaelic Football followers. One of the more persistent suggestions by fans and even some clubs like Athlone Town is for the Premier Division to be expanded to include all or most of the First Division teams. While this might sound great for UCD/Cobh/Cabinteely et al it would weaken to league as a whole for following reasons.
By incorporating 4 additional teams you are introducing teams that have no hope of competing for the title or European places. While this is the case in most leagues it is counterbalanced by the threat of relegation which would not exist in a 16-team league without a large number of clubs joining the senior ranks. Given the lack of interest from clubs and the high affiliation fees charged by the FAI this is highly unlikely.
So in a 16 team league you would have at best 5-6 teams at the top competing for European places and the title while the remaining majority go through the motions. Does anyone really believe Limerick would have seen their bumper crowds towards the end of last season without the threat of relegation?
Evidence that attendances would decrease
There has been a proven history that teams without any title aspirations or to a lesser extent relegation threat see a drop-off of nearly 50% overall in attendances.
Advocates for the 16 team league argue that the reduced amount of times the top teams meet will increase the importance of these fixtures. This effect is negligible as proven by the current system where you play a team twice at home one year and only once the following. There is no increase in attendance for the year’s with a single home fixture if performance levels remain constant or similar. The notion that replacing even a lower ranked team in a hypothetical 10 team league like Sligo Rovers with an uncompetitive team like Athlone would see an increase in attendances is ridiculous.
Lesser teams would not improve
The argument that playing against the best teams will improve the teams joining the premier division makes sense in theory but with the increased European money now available to the top teams it is hard to see this occurring.
Given that there is essentially no reward for performing above expectation for these sides the motivation to push themselves on small budgets will dissipate. This will lead either to over-spending in attempt to break into the elite or disinterest at the bottom of the division with no threat of relegation to motivate them. A smaller league spreads the talent broader and gives clubs like Bohemian FC last year a shot a European football right until the end.
What happens to the remaining teams?
Being able to maintain a senior team is no easy task so to discard four of them with no obvious destination or route back to the top is foolhardy to say the least. In order even consider a 16 team premier we must first have at least 26 senior clubs so that the remainder have a division to call their own.
It is hard enough to promote exciting clashes like Cork City vs Dundalk in a packed Turners Cross or Shamrock Rovers vs Bohs in the modern Tallaght Stadium. Amateur teams playing in small or dilapidated stadiums would not be attractive to sponsors. TV companies also don’t care if the same high quality fixtures re-occur in fact Sky used to stipulate that at least four Old Firm derbies would have to take place a year or they would reduce their bid for SPL coverage.
No pathway to top tier for amateur teams
Now the current situation is far from ideal but at least a club like Cabinteely can join the First Division as an amateur team and adapt slowly to senior football and get results.
If they joined and were pitted against the top teams immediately it might generate high interest initially but eventually heavy defeats would cause the fans and sponsors to flee from the product. The First Division allows clubs to compete for success at their own level and push on when ready. The attractiveness of the First would only be increased by the addition of 2 Premier teams.
A 16 team league does not solve the LOI’s problems it only increases them. Under the current level of senior participation a 10 team premier would serve the league best unless the clubs were willing to adopt a radical play-off system which never seems pop.