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All-Ireland League, Belgium-Dutch League, Atlantic League: Will European Domestic Leagues Turn to Regional League Formats Sooner Rather Than Later?

Most sports struggle between change and tradition. Football no stranger to this conflict. It’s a sport that wants to continue to be accessible to the working people that birthed it despite it’s ever-increasing revenue and status, which is where some of the change-tradition issues stem.

One area of the sport which is indicative of this is the embrace and resistance to statistical and tactical analytics. Football has been behind the curve of this more “academic” turn within the wider sporting landscape, with the likes of the NBA and MLB very much frontrunners. However, in the last few years, a select number of clubs have incorporated analytics into the fabric of their decision making process, namely the likes of Matthew Benham’s Brentford F.C. and FC Midtjylland beginning the movement with FSG’s Liverpool F.C. becoming the most successful example.

Publicly, social media enabled amateur bloggers, programmers, and data analysts to experiment with football event data, developing metrics and visualisations to improve understanding. It’s early uses were for fun, namely, but, also, were applied to fantasy football teams and online sports betting and sport booksfor in-play, pre-game, outright bets. The other motivation was to showcase skills for potential employers too, which has resulted in a number of public bloggers getting jobs at professional clubs – Statsbomb, a company founded by Ted Knutson who was inside at Brentford and Midtjylland, are an one example who hired many public bloggers.

Despite it’s on-field success and some fans taking an interest to it, other fans have resisted it. It is changing the language of the sport. It’s altering the fundamental cornerstones for how the game is understood and played. It is forcing fans to accept that they might not know as much as it first appeared, which is discomforting. The sport is still football, but how it’s spoken about it is different.

12 October 2021; Conor Coventry of Republic of Ireland in action against Danilo Pesukic of Montenegro during the UEFA European U21 Championship Qualifier Group F match between Montenegro and Republic of Ireland at Gradski Stadion Podgorica in Podgorica, Montenegro. Photo by Filip Roganovice/Sportsfile

Regional Leagues

Another worry for fans is the change of competition formats. Talk has always surrounded how leagues might change and adapt to growing needs and demands of the footballing calendar and footballing audience. The European Cup, now known as the Champions League, has undergone numerous changes across its lifetime, varying from pure single-elimination matches to the format we know today which consists of qualification matches, a group stage, and the two-legged knockouts before the final. It is now subject to new changes which are currently being discussed at the highest level.

The Premier League was founded in 1992, which was a considerable move to break away from the football league, which enabled the teams in the Premier League to consolidate money from TV deals within the league, as opposed to distributing it among lower division teams. This has seen considerable deals made with TV broadcasters across the world, which has seen prices rise from the £304M Sky paid in 1992 to the £9.2B national and international broadcasters paid for the 2019-2022 seasons.

Nowadays, at a domestic level, rumours of football associations of different nations holding talks about mergers have begun to spread and be confirmed. The Belgium FA and Netherlands FA have been very vocal about their possible merger, citing a studywhich could see the joint league generate €400M a year, which dwarfs the collective TV deals both leagues have arranged now. The pursuit of the league, then, is about the financial security of professional clubs.

All-Ireland League

The same thing is being considered for the Irish Premiership and the Danske Bank Premiership. It would be an all-Ireland football league, where teams for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would compete in one domestic league. Twenty of the twenty-two leagues have back the proposal. Finer details need to be sorted, but they all agree that they’d like UEFA to consider the arrangement.

The All-Ireland League would have a complex schedule. The early parts of the campaign would see teams compete against teams from their own country – Irish teams play Irish teams and Northern Irish teams play Northern Irish teams – before coming together to play against each other in the second half of the campaign. The early season results would create seedings for the late season matches. All the points from all the matches – in the individual league and the joint – would be totalled up before heading into a knockout tournament to determine the overall winner, the best team across the competition.

Mergers could be an important solution to long-term questions of how sustainable football clubs are.

Threat of the European Super League

UEFA are keen to improve competition within domestic leagues and ensure the economic stability of clubs. They are open to these mergers taking place in Belgium and Holland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and in other areas like Scandinavia. Whether this is largely, in part, due to the constant threat that UEFA are under by major European clubs who are always supposedly considering breaking away from these governances to create their own super league remains to be seen. However, UEFA having other competitive and healthy products enables them to worry less about this threat.

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