There is a storm swirling under the surface in the League of Ireland this year.
The League may only be in its budding stages but has already witnessed an unprecedented number of high attendances and sell-outs that have become a welcome feature of the early 2019 season. While Dundalk and Cork City have topped the attendance charts over the last few years, this season the Dublin clubs are experiencing their own surge.
Bohemians, for example, have had to take the rare action of turning away ticketless fans on match nights. “It's actually a problem”, Luke O’Riordan, Communications Director at Bohemians, tells Off the Ball.
“We are full to capacity. We are turning people away which is something we never thought we’d have to do. It’s the first time we are crying out for more space.”
Indeed, the home stand has sold out for all four games at Dalymount Park this season, with the Dublin derbies against Shamrock Rovers and St. Patrick’s Athletic being total sellouts.
For a league that’s problems have historically been financial struggles and the inability to pay players or staff, the issue of having insufficient space to meet demand is a welcome one. St. Pat’s too have had to turn fans away from one of their home games this season, when 4,400 people packed into a sold-out Richmond Park to watch the derby against Shamrock Rovers; their highest domestic attendance in over a decade.
In Tallaght, Shamrock Rovers have already surpassed their highest home attendance of last year, and Mark Lynch, a board director of the club, explains that even lower profile games against clubs like UCD have attracted attendances twice they would have in previous seasons.
Admittedly, the most recent game week saw attendances slump as Liverpool’s appearance on Friday Night Football and the poor weather tempted fans away from League of Ireland grounds. However, according to Extratime.ie, after five game weeks the average League of Ireland gate was up by 10 per cent, with Dublin undeniably responsible for the majority of that increase.
The question though is why?
Is there a ‘hipsterisation’ of the league occuring similar to that enjoyed by lower league teams in England a few seasons ago? London club Dulwich Hamlet, for example, gained considerable coverage after they experienced a surge in new supporters attracted by a £10 alternative to the ever-increasing cost of the Premier League, and the appeal of craft beers and gourmet food being served at lower league games.
The Dublin clubs too have begun to offer the allure of craft beers and food to attract fans. For the last three seasons, Bohemians have offered craft beers from Trouble Brewing and food from local company Pieman in their ground. In addition, this season, Pat’s teamed up with their local brewery, Rascal’s Brewery, to offer fans discounts on pizza and beers on match night.
While those involved with Dublin clubs are eager to bat away suggestions that new fans are just craft beer-drinking hipsters, Joe Donnelly from Rascals Brewery does note that craft beer enthusiasts and League of Ireland fans do indeed have similar attributes.
“They are quite obsessive about something that is a bit niche”, he explains. “And they are really, really into it. They don't usually do things by half measures.”
Rather than attracting a hipster clientele, Donnelly says those coming to the brewery on match nights have been from every demographic - young and old, local and tourist.
Kie Carew, editor of football culture magazine Póg Mo Goal, says that some people are willing to dismiss clubs offering craft beer as “hipster shite”. However, the introduction of craft beers at Bohemians was initially for commercial reasons, offering clubs a bigger markup as well as supporting local businesses and giving fans more choice.
Those involved with clubs too are eager to reject the idea of a ‘hipsterisation’ of the league. After all, hipsters are a trend and, fatally, trends don’t last.
Whilst the return to Ireland of players such as Jack Byrne and Chris Forrester has piqued interest, the scale of the increase in attendances cannot solely be put down to that. Bohs too have seen their attendances surge despite not having an obvious marquee signing. Rather, those involved with clubs think new crowds are here to stay and are attracted by community initiatives and improved marketing.
Shamrock Rovers’ Mark Lynch highlights the standard of clubs’ output on social media in terms of graphics, videos and quality of photography as “better than ever before” and thinks that these improvements have been important in growing the league’s brand image.
Daniel Lambert, another volunteer at Bohs, says that the League of Ireland’s image as “counter-cultural” is becoming attractive to those bored by the Premier League. “It’s that sense of an identity where you stand against things – in a good way. It's becoming a bit more fashionable or a bit more popular.”
Another reason crowds may be up is due to areas such as Dublin 8 and Phibsborough becoming increasingly attractive areas for young families. The presence of the LUAS and clean-ups of the canal has seen a migration of new people into the area, many of whom have then been enticed to engage with the local football clubs as a resource in the community.
For Lambert, he says the nature of Bohs as an outlet for the community makes it a better club now than when it was regularly winning titles in the 2000s.
“There were some amazing results and I look back at those results then, but I would have rather not won anything and not blown the money the club blew. What the club was about was one thing: it was selling the team on the pitch. And now you have a youth section that has multiplied by four, an amputee team, a choir, the arts programme with local artists.”
St. Pat’s too have put an emphasis on having a presence in local schools and relationships with schoolboy clubs to attract young fans and their families, while Rovers have offered a family season ticket that caters for one adult and three children at a price of under €12 a match. All of which have undoubtedly been successful in engaging the local communities.
As often is the case the success this year is likely due to a culmination of several different reasons. However, similarly to the storm that is making its way through the FAI, the increase in attendances doesn’t carry with it the feeling that this will all soon blow over. Instead, many will be hoping it is the beginning of a brighter new era for Irish football.