THE FORGOTTEN SPORT: Domestic football leagues aren’t generating enough excitement to draw big audiences.
RIGA - Did you notice that the Baltic domestic football leagues have now begun a new season? If not, do not worry, as you were not the only one.
With the Virsliga kicking off in Latvia over the weekend, top-tier football is now being played in all three Baltic States, but while the national teams in the Baltics are producing strong results, the domestic leagues across the three states are taking place under the radar as they struggle to attract the same interest as the leagues of their big Western neighbors.
Despite being played over the summer months and avoiding any major clashes with the other sports that dominate the public sphere in the Baltics – namely basketball and ice hockey – domestic football leagues in this part of the world fail to attract the interest of the public. This can be attributed to multiple factors, ranging from a lack of competition and funding through to an inability to retain local players.
With none of the three leagues more than five games old, they already have a certain air of predictability to them, with only a handful of competing teams in with a realistic chance of winning their respective leagues. In the Estonian Meistriliiga, FC Flora are hands-on favorites to win a ninth title, with Levadia Tallinn and Sallamae Kalev expected to be the two teams that will challenge them; in the Latvian Virsliga the battle will be between Ventspils, Skonto and Liepaja Metalurgs; in the A-lyga in Lithuania the title is expected to be decided between Ekranas and Suduva.
This predictability comes down to the fact that outside of the aforementioned clubs, few in the Baltics have the finances and resources to compete in major European competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup – competitions that are much more likely to attract spectators and media. These teams are funded by private investors and are run as fully professional outfits, leading to mismatches when they return to play against semi-pro teams in their respective domestic leagues. Despite the one-sided results, the domestic leagues play a vital role for these clubs, who need to win at domestic level in order to qualify for the early stages of major tournaments. The only problem is that for fans, this can often lead to unattractive one-sided results, making the majority of the games in the domestic leagues unappealing.
Take, for example, wealthy Latvian club Ventspils, who this season will sport two Japanese, two Russians and a Uruguayan in their lineup; then, another Latvian club, Skonto, whose director, Andrei Bakharev, told uefa.com that “our main purpose is to nurture players for the national team,” with the majority of national team players who remain in Latvia now playing for Skonto. Both clubs are expected to face few hurdles throughout the domestic season and it is of all likelihood that they will participate in major competitions in wider Europe later in the year. In the meantime, other clubs in the Virsliga are operating as semi-professional entities, yet are still expected to compete with their big brothers. Only a few of the nine clubs in the competition will be able to do so, but it is more likely that each round will produce a number of one-sided results.
This can be further exemplified by the fact that the Virsliga will take place with one less team this year, with Rezekne Blazma lacking the funding necessary to play in the top league, citing the costs of travelling to play in away games. Away games typically constitute bus trips of no more than five hours. If such a simple expense cannot be reached, then there is little hope of such a club attracting foreign talent which, in turn, may help it compete with top Latvian teams and subsequently attract more fans and sponsorship. In recent seasons Blazma regularly finished the season in the middle of the Virsliga table.
The Virsliga also lacks a naming right sponsor following the withdrawal of Latvijas Mobilais Telefons (LMT), who has instead opted to focus their funding on youth football. Interestingly, Latvian Football Federation (LFF) President Guntis Indriksons is putting a positive spin on the situation, telling LETA that it can be seen as a good thing that the league will take place without a main sponsor, as it will bring the clubs closer together to create a more professional league. Until more funding is opened up to all teams and the talent pool is divvied across the competition, this is unlikely to happen.
The A-lyga in Lithuania has also had its share of financial problems, but is remaining positive by expanding from 10 to 12 teams, this despite the financial collapse of leading club Ekranas, who have succumbed to financial problems. The club has been amongst the strongest in Lithuania in recent years, but last year they found themselves unable to uphold the financial obligations of the A-lyga and were expelled midway through the season. Football also remains firmly rooted behind basketball as the sport of choice with Lithuanians, and this is unlikely to change as the nation prepares to host the Euro basketball championships this summer.
The situation in Estonia is a little different, with the success of the national program and junior development programs leading to a majority of the top flight players taking up attractive contracts abroad. As was stated in TBT last week, there are now 35 Estonian players who ply their trade in foreign leagues across 10 countries. Theoretically, these players could make up the starting line-ups of three Meistriliiga teams and significantly bolster the national competition. Instead, they opt to mainly head west for salaries they could not hope to earn at home, and the opportunity to play against the world’s best on a weekly basis. Were they to remain playing in Estonia, then they would have to rely on their team qualifying to play in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions and Europa leagues in order to come up against quality opposition regularly.
Since 2007, the Triobet Baltic League has attempted to bolster interest in football in the region and give more than the top four teams from each country the opportunity to play outside of their domestic league. Beginning midway through the local seasons and finishing halfway through the next, the Baltic League starts with the 16 leading teams from the three Baltic leagues, with the competition taking place as a knockout format with each team needing to win a home and away series to qualify for the next round. While the competition does provide extra games for leading Baltic clubs, it suffers from similar problems to the three domestic leagues with low crowd attendance and limited games being broadcast. Those that are broadcast are done so on pay television, severely limiting their audience. The league also fails to attract any real interest outside of the Baltic countries, leaving some to question how it can remain sustainable.
The three domestic leagues will be fought out over the summer months, while the quarter-finals of the Triobet Baltic League take place across the Baltics this week with the semi-finals set to take place on May 3 and 4. For more information regarding the domestic leagues and match schedules go to www.uefa.com.
More information about the Triobet Baltic League can be found at www.balticleague.com.