“We may suffer from proximity to one of the world’s biggest leagues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be the best at what we do.”
Director of the League of Ireland Fran Gavin set the tone for a productive day at the Irish Supporters Network’s LOI Supporters: Making a Vital Difference workshop by Niall Farrell.
Delegates from clubs and supporters’ groups across the country met at the Aviva Stadium with the aim of finding ways that football supporters can work together and learn from each other.
The day was broken up into three workshops – focusing on fan engagement, the role of the supporter liaison officer (SLO) and volunteering – followed by a panel discussion which looked at how to attract more fans to LOI clubs.
The first workshop heard from Kevin Sexton (CEO of Mobstats) and Dr. Nigel Dobson (Head of Sport at Ulster University), who presented successful examples of fan engagement in sport.
“Why shouldn’t the local game have the same tools that the World Cup has?” was the key question from Kevin Sexton, who argued that LOI clubs should make better use of already-existing technology to engage fans.
An example of this was using social media to connect with ‘Meerkat’ fans – who are present at a match but also doing a number of other things, such as using a mobile device to talk with other fans or check scores of other matches.
The need to see matchnights as an event, with a football match as the centrepiece, was a recurring theme throughout the day.
Delegates from Bohemians told of how they had furthered their engagement with the local community over the past few years. Bohs have worked to establish a prison programme – where people in Mountjoy and Cloverhill prisons are trained and play matches against Bohs players.
This, along with other initiatives, has led to Bohemians being better received in the local community. Clubs should “see themselves as a community/cultural hub”, according to Dr Nigel Dobson.
Arne Christian Eggen from Rosenborg and Stuart Dykes from Supporters’ Direct were the main speakers at the SLO workshop. Arne Christian relayed his experience as an SLO at his club, where he had to introduce the role of SLO.
Stuart has experience working with SLOs thrughout Europe, and both he and Arne Cristian agreed that SLOs have to be a “balanced player”, someone trusted by both fans and the club’s board.
The three most important parts of the role, according to Stuart, are “talking, talking and talking”. Arne Christian spoke about the preparations he makes before a Rosenborg home match: he has to consult with home fans, the police, the club and the opposing club’s SLO.
The third workshop looked at volunteering at LOI clubs. Danny Quinn from St. Pat’s opened the discussion with details of the Patron Saints scheme. In the last four years, the scheme has raised over €100,000 for projects at the club including the renovation of a stand at Richmond Park and the club shop.
John Kennedy spoke about how he has helped a family-friendly stand in Turner’s Cross to thrive. “Positive support for Cork City – that’s the message we’re trying to get across,” he said.
Stuart McSweeney from Shamrock Rovers said that the club’s youth set-up has had benefits for the whole club – not only in terms of on-the-pitch success but also in terms of broader community engagement.
The club have established a First Steps programme, which brings children into Shamrock Rovers from a very early age. There are now over 200 players in the club’s youth set-up.
The #greatestleagueintheworld hashtag on Twitter was the focus of the final speaker’s presentation, with Aidan McNelis from Finn Harps outlining plans for a joint social media campaign in the run-up to the 2015 LOI season. The campaign would highlight what makes the LOI unique in a bid to win more fans for clubs across the league.
The workshop concluded with a panel discussion on how best to attract fans to the LOI, with the panel comprising former LOI player Alan Cawley, journalist Owen Cowzer, Ben Shave of Supporters’ Direct and Tim Murphy from Cork City FC.
The need to run clubs like a company, initially put forward by Tim Murphy, was a key part of the discussion. Similar to a company’s approach, clubs should “put an emphasis on improving the product.”
Media coverage of the league was also a subject of discussion, with the panel agreeing that coverage has improved significantly in recent years – particularly in print.
Owen Cowzer argues that this boost in coverage has been driven by social media. “Media engagement with fans on Twitter has proved that there’s a core LOI audience that will buy a newspaper,” he said.
It was also widely agreed that more could be done to utilise former League of Ireland players now making appearances for the national squad in terms of showcasing our domestic league in its best light.
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