As an expat one of the things I miss most about home is going along to watch my team Portadown each Saturday. As a former Fermanagh resident, it involves a bit of a journey – with Ballinamallard being the exception to the rule – but the opportunity to spend a bit of time with Dad, listen to the build up on the radio before getting into the ground half an hour before kick off were as much part of the experience as the game itself… and of course the result influenced drive home could be anything from delight to despair – our longest drive without a word came after losing to Glentoran at Shamrock Park… first words were spoken as we approached Fivemiletown, about forty miles or so later.
It was quite pleasing to take a glance at the attendance figures from the Irish League this week and discover that five teams are averaging over 1,000 at their home games after four (minimum) home games each. Indeed, Glentoran, Linfield and Cliftonville are all nearly at 2,000! Ballymena, Coleraine and Glenavon are all nearly at the 1,00 mark too. It is of course early days and as the season takes it’s twists and turns, some of those numbers will diminish, but it demonstrates that there is interest in the game in Northern Ireland. If only we could start to persuade non-attenders to be come casual attenders and then casual attenders to become regular attenders, there’s no reason why the numbers can’t grow significantly.
Exposure of the league isn’t brilliant (understatement alert) with the BBC NI Sports team providing the only mainstream TV coverage, BBC Radio Ulster providing Saturday afternoon coverage and then the province wide papers providing some articles. Often times it’s the local papers (Portadown Times, Impartial Reporter, etc.) that provide the really good coverage. SKY Sports recently announced it no longer intends to cover games – albeit due to their loss of International coverage due to combined rights packages, as opposed to not liking the product. With low cost carriers and the proliferation of sports TV channels covering the English game, it’s never been easier to watch football from other places in the UK and other countries. It’s a far cry from when I was growing up with Match of the Day & Gazette Football Italia!
In comparison to the deluge of football available on televisions across Northern Ireland, it’s hard to spot the Irish League coverage and then of course the less than favourable comparisons begin. “I wouldn’t watch that s*ite” being a regular retort from football lovers, but not local football lovers in Ulster. And yet if they attended – instead of passing their money over to English and Scottish clubs – they quality of the game here would improve.
Clubs are also trying to battle H&S zealots as well as run a business, with ticketing arrangements insisted upon by the authorities bizarre and ridiculous most of the time. Shamrock Park, which has a capacity of around 2,500 seats is believed by Craigavon Borough Council to have a ‘potential’ capacity of over 5,000 – which means it’s required to adhere to a different set of criteria hand if it’s capacity was it’s actual. Madness.
The NI Football League (the company that organises the top divisions in Northern Ireland) have recently been formed and are looking at all sorts of options. In NI the top participation sport is Football – so getting times when players are available helps boost attendances. But the persuasion of arm chair supporters to attend is perhaps the biggest challenge – perhaps the insurmountable one?
Some clubs are now operating online ticket sales, incentives are frequent, but not often well known about – it requires a huge effort from small numbers of volunteers to get the word out there – to push it to prospective attenders.