Summer football option discussed as UEFA delegate presents feedback to NIFL

How will football progress in Northern Ireland?
How will football progress in Northern Ireland?

Irish League chiefs could be forced to make a decision on summer football – after clubs and fans disagreed over how to improve attendances and increase revenue.

The Northern Ireland Football League called on UEFA’s services back in December to help draft a blueprint for the future of local football.

On Monday night Tom Gorissen, Advisory Manager, UEFA Top Executive Programme, presented feedback and results from the Focus Groups held in December and January with all 42 member clubs, fans, sponsors, media and broadcasters.

During those group meetings stakeholders looked into the re-structure options for the NIFL.

One of the issues discussed last night was the prospect of summer football.

Gorissen said: “We have suggested summer football, based around a season which starts in February, and runs until end of November. While fans seemed to be in favour of this, the biggest issue raised was missing out on Boxing Day football.”

Concerns over the hardness of pitches and consequential injuries during the summer, along with players’ holidays were raised.

A key objective is to increase annual turnover, although within the Irish League, generating income through the traditional streams of ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcast rights is limited.

Gorissen added: “Increasing stadium attendances by 15 per cent, raising a current average of 887 to 1,021, would help.

“Marketing and promotion, alongside community engagement, is key to increasing attendances and can encourage an increase in media coverage. Larger incomes can help to subsidise stadium improvement and in turn, promote better development of players and eventually competition.”

UEFA’s recommendations will now have to be considered by the NIFL board, although conflicting views will make this challenging.

Restructuring the league, changing the number of teams in a division, reviewing kick-off times and days, and even considering summer football, are now all on the board’s agenda, following the lengthy consultation.

Over 85 per cent of people are content with the 14 clubs in the Championship 1, and 16 in Championship 2, however feedback suggested a decrease from 12 to 10 in the Premiership may be beneficial.

Gorrisen added: “With this alternative, you have a greater concentration of quality in the Premiership and avoid a greater gap in the stronger and lower sides.

“We have noted that a winter break of one or two weeks, as they take elsewhere in Europe, is not possible as it’s a semi-professional league.”

NIFL managing director Andrew Johnston says doubts remain over how to progress.

He said: “It’s difficult because the stakeholder feedback has been very different from the online responses we received, and now the challenge for the board is to make a decision about how to move forward.

“We’ve had discussions but it’s down to the Board to thrash out a few of those different ideas.

“Obviously it would have been much easier had we had a clear consensus.

“If we improve the Premiership we need to have a more competitive structure, and that’s more clubs, if not all clubs, in the second tier pushing for promotion because they want to come up.

“The financial incentive is what’s needed. We have considered long and hard about how we redevelop the financial structure, a performance on business and club performance off the pitch as well as achievements on it.

“We have to get all of these components right moving forward. That includes increasing the marketing support for clubs from us.”