Many League of Ireland fans have voiced their displeasure on the lack of coverage of the sport on TV in recent years. The issue particularly came to the fore during the summer with Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, and Dundalk all going on European runs without TV coverage, for the most part. There's also frustration by the lack of league games being broadcast, especially in the midst of a pandemic, with no or limited crowds for the most of the season.
Tonight @sligorovers host @stpatsfc and it’s live on RTE 2. It’s the first LOI/FAI cup game shown live on RTE in 127 days.
The gap between the last game shown in 2020 and 1st game shown in 2021 was 104 days.
— Dodge (@seidodge) September 10, 2021
Speaking on the LOI Central podcast, RTÉ's Group Head of Sport Declan McBennett gave his take on it from the broadcaster's perspective.
"I met the League of Ireland clubs in the Aviva Stadium in late 2018, after I got the job," McBennett said. "I said to them, in broad terms, if your product is over 100,000 of an audience, then you're a flyer."
"If it's between 50 and 100,000, legitimate questions will be asked. And if it's below 50,000, then quite frankly, you're in the drop zone, because it's in a very, very competitive environment."
Podcast host Johnny Ward summed up how many felt when RTÉ or no other broadcaster picked up the most recent set of European games.
"I suppose that's what really killed me," Ward said. "When you see Patrick McEleney scoring that goal against Vitesse Arnhem in a beautiful stadium, when you see the goals that Bohs scored in the Aviva Stadium."
"That's what killed me because this is a product that actually looks great. And we have it and it's not on TV."
OH MY WORD! That is special from Patrick McEleney! 😲@DundalkFC have come from behind to lead against Vitesse, and what a goal it was from McEleney!
Unbelievable skill, composure, and audacity to pull off the finish. WOW. 🤯
Sign up 📺 | https://t.co/sVFqVgEguX#LOITV | #LOI pic.twitter.com/JEkQ7WdKcZ
— SSE Airtricity League (@SSEAirtricityLg) August 5, 2021
McBennett responded with some of the figures from Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk's Europa League runs and how that was reflected in terms of viewership.
"Dundalk versus Kí, 147,000. Rovers versus Milan, 212,000. Dundalk versus Riga, 75,000. Cork versus Rosenborg, the two games 66-69,000."
"Milan, and Zlatan was playing," McBennett said. "It was brilliant. And that's what you want to see. Dundalk versus Kí - not in the same league, quite frankly."
As mentioned early, the RTÉ Chief has come under fire for not showing the recent European games, as podcast host Dan McDonnell pointed out that "these are the games people actually do want to watch".
Okay, so there's two things. Number one, you have to be conscious of what was actually happening this summer in terms of the games that we're doing.
Number two, we can devote all our resources to doing 15 or 16 European games. We don't then have the resources to do Sligo versus Pats or Derry versus Finn Harps.
Resources seemed to be an overarching narrative when McBennett was discussing securing the rights to show most League of Ireland games.
Another big factor at play has been the summer of sport gone by, and trying to fit in as much variety of sport as RTÉ can handle, especially from a financial point of view.
"If you went back five or 10 years, we would have had, relatively speaking, 100 euro to spend on five sports," McBennett said.
"Three dominant ones, and a fourth one in terms of rugby, soccer, GAA, and the fourth one is horse racing. And then you would have one or two other sports that were on the periphery."
"(Now) we have 80 euro to spend on eight or nine sports, because we now have rowing, we've hockey that has come to the fore in recent times, particularly with the women's team. We have gymnastics, we have all the Olympic sports."
— Domestic Ireland (@DomesticIreland) February 5, 2020
McBennett acknowledges that the ceasing of Eir Sport, who picked up a large chunk of the games that RTÉ were missing, has also put them in a difficult position.
This year is obviously the nuance. By the nature of the deal (with Eir) that was there and every other year, we would start because we have the greatest level of exposure.
Eir stepped into the breach because we tend to to go away and do some more tournaments by the nature of whatever it is. And then we would come back and again.
Host McDonnell asked about the gap in the coverage, and if McBennett and RTÉ could sympathise with some of the frustration vented by League of Ireland fans.
"If you were a fan of the league, in that perspective, where your product disappears for four months in the middle of the season," McDonnell asked. "Do you understand where there'd be some genuine anger with that?"
"The full onus has not been and cannot be particularly on one broadcaster," McBennett responded. "It doesn't happen in any other league."
"On one level, you can say, well, they have a monopoly and that's going to lead to particular implications. On another level you say, well, why aren't there multiple broadcasters competing for this product?"
A lot of the wider implications such as investment in stadiums and league structure came to the fore, as a reason for there not being more than one broadcaster securing TV rights.
Nonetheless, the decisive element for McBennett and RTÉ is viewership, after he listed off the earlier League of Ireland games this season mostly ranging in the 40,000 to 45,000 range.
"So, the Ireland Republic of Ireland women's game against Australia only came to the table matter of weeks ago. And we said, 'yes, we will do it,'" McBennett said.
"So we show that game last night, that game last night, averaged 100,000. And to your point, Dan, peaked at 171,000. It's not solely about the numbers, but you can't ignore the numbers."
You can listen to the entire LOI Central Podcast here.