You can't guilt-trip Irish Premier League fans for not supporting the League of Ireland
Arsenal finished the penultimate game of their pre-season on Wednesday with a 6-5 penalty shootout win over Chelsea in front of 46,002 fans at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
It was the first of two pre-season friendlies involving Premier League teams in the Irish capital this month with Liverpool also set to play Napoli at the Aviva on Saturday in what will also be their penultimate pre-season game before the new Premier League season kicks off the weekend after next.
The Reds also happened to play their final pre-season game of last season at the Aviva with Jurgen Klopp's side running out 3-1 winners over Athletic Bilbao in front of a sold out crowd in Dublin.
The pre-season friendlies serve as a final opportunity for Irish Premier League fans to watch their favourite teams play in Ireland, without having to spend hundreds of euros on flights, accommodation and tickets, but it's often a stick that some League of Ireland fans use to beat the fans who choose to attend those matches.
46,002 in attendance today at the Aviva Stadium for a pointless friendly match between Arsenal and Chelsea, the overall attendance in the League of Ireland last weekend was 11,576. Over 3 times more people at this pointless friendly.
Surely the FAI cant think that's normal?
— Domestic Ireland (@DomesticIreland) August 1, 2018
There were 19 internationals out of 22 starting players on Wednesday at the Aviva. There were four World Cup winners. Champions League winners. FA Cup winners. Premier League winners on show.
The point here is not to compare the quality on offer in the Premier League with what is shown on a weekly basis in the League of Ireland, the point is to question why are the 46,002 people that attended the Arsenal and Chelsea friendly repeatedly shamed for attending these types of matches?
The Arsenal and Chelsea game is not an isolated example either, when Liverpool came to Dublin to play Shamrock Rovers at the Aviva in 2014, RTE devoted just under 17 minutes to the topic on Soccer Republic.
Six-time League of Ireland winner Dermot Keeley kicked off the show's segment by claiming that '42,000' morons attended the game between Rovers and Liverpool before Richie Sadlier countered his point, with a brief laugh beforehand, by stating that Irish people should not have to support Irish clubs just by virtue of their Irishness and that the issue is far more complex than a case of nationality.
It's an argument that is constantly raised by a section of League of Ireland fans. Why would you go spend hundreds of euros to fly over to England when you have teams playing right here? The 'barstoolers' never come to games in the League of Ireland. 'We're here week-in-week-out supporting our team'.
Marketing the League of Ireland is a thankless job. A conversation with a consistent question and no clear answer.
Invest in the players? Sean Maguire, Daryl Horgan and countless others that are worth investing in leave the league before you can get a return on that investment.
Glamourise the league? Have you seen the state of the Carlisle Grounds or the Des Kelly Stand in Dalymount Park?
Build big screens for half-time games of FIFA and introduce a 'Hollywood style' walk of fame at each club (which, sadly, were actual suggestions from 'international branding expert' Jonathan Gabay that were paid for by the FAI)? Please.
With a Premier League pre-season friendly nearly quadrupling an entire weekend of League of Ireland football in terms of attendances it shows that there's still a lot to be done in the league here but it's not as if this is exclusively an Irish-centric problem.
The average attendance in Major League Soccer this season has been 21,309 per match, up 11.2% from the 2014 season, and yet, 101,254 people went to watch Liverpool play Manchester United at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor last month.
66,805 people went to watch Barcelona play Tottenham in Miami. 52, 635 fans went to see Liverpool defeat Manchester City in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
MLS attendances have increased by 29.3% over the last decade and they're continuing to add new teams to their league. The League of Ireland just announced an emergency budget of €300,000 for teams that couldn't afford to pay their players.
It doesn't matter if a league is experiencing a boom or whether it's constantly jumping from match fixing scandals to potential player strikes, the Premier League has consistently shown that even 'pointless pre-season friendlies' can dwarf domestic league games in terms of attendances. These are global brands, not just football clubs.
The International Champions Cup, a tournament filled with teams that play 'pointless' friendlies, has averaged 38,687 fans per match across six different countries in this year's tournament.
Survey research into consumer trends show that the number one reason people attend or watch sporting games is for the aesthetics – as one respondent put it, ‘to see something amazing happen’.
It's why more people consistently choose to watch the UFC over BAMMA in MMA, Oscar nominated films over IFTA nominated films in film and the Premier League over the League of Ireland in football.
It's not so much a question of Irish people, or Americans as we've also seen here, choosing or not choosing to watch Irish or American clubs play football, but rather 101,254 consumers parting ways with their money in the hope that something amazing will happen at the game they pay to attend, and then when they do pay, they are treated to a Xherdan Shaqiri bicycle kick when they ultimately follow through with that decision.
📺 Xherdan Shaqiri's debut goal vs Man United as seen from the crowd. pic.twitter.com/tGcbrvmeLM
— LFC Globe (@LFCGlobeUK) July 28, 2018
However, if the standard improves, even in a league like the League of Ireland, fans will come.
30,417 supporters turned up to the Aviva Stadium to watch Dundalk play Legia Warsaw in the final round of the 2016/17 Champions League qualifiers.
If the Lilywhites had made it past Legia in their play-off tie and qualified for Europe's premier club competition they would have drawn Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the group stages and those matches would not have been held at Tallaght Stadium.
Dundalk have averaged 2,503 fans this season and they are currently riding an 11 game win streak in the League of Ireland. They averaged over 5,500 fans when they qualified for the Europa League group stages in 2016.
Fans will watch an Irish team when they show that they can step up and play against some of Europe's best, but you can't persecute the so called 'barstoolers' for watching Premier League teams when fans from across America, and indeed the globe, are doing the exact same thing when these clubs come to their respective countries.
The A-League in Australia averaged 10, 671 fans per game last season. The highest attended game of that campaign was the Sydney derby between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers with 36,433 people coming to watch a 5-0 thrashing at Stadium Australia.
72,892 fans went to watch Liverpool play Sydney at the same stadium six months earlier, in what some would call, a pointless friendly.
It's a race to the top, not to the bottom.