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BBC NI shows live rugby and GAA, so why not the Irish League, ask fed-up fans

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 01/09/2016

Crusaders were crowned Irish League champions in May
Crusaders were crowned Irish League champions in May

Almost 1,000 furious fans have signed a petition attacking the BBC over its alleged neglect of Irish League football.

They are angry with the lack of television exposure the game gets in Northern Ireland.

The Irish League is one of the few in Europe that does not have live coverage or a dedicated TV highlights programme.

Yet interest in the Irish League has surged after a series of big-name arrivals including ex-Rangers striker Nacho Novo and former Celtic star Paddy McCourt.

Hundreds of fed-up fans have now started an online campaign calling on the Beeb to up its game as a matter of urgency.

The petition set up by Gary Smyth has received more than 940 signatures in two weeks.

Mr Smyth, from Ballymena, said he would like to see matches shown live.

"The BBC have the rights to our football but only show brief highlights via Newsline and an online broadcast," he added.

"We would like to see a weekly match aired live to breathe life into our local game."

BBC NI holds the exclusive rights to the Danske Bank Premiership, and recently signed a new four-year contract.

While football is covered by the BBC's radio and online platforms, Irish League games receive just a few minutes TV airtime every week. A 30-minute highlights package is produced, but its is only available online via the BBC website.

Brief highlights of some matches are shown on the Saturday teatime Final Score TV programme. But it can be as short as 10 minutes and often includes highlights of other sports such as rugby and ice hockey.

It is also shown at a time when many fans are making their way home from matches. By contrast the BBC provides extensive TV coverage of other sports. Ulster Rugby PRO12 games and GAA Championship matches are regularly shown live.

In the Republic, the League of Ireland gets in-depth TV coverage from Irish State broadcaster RTE. It shows some games live, and broadcasts a popular hour-long highlights programme on Monday nights.

Irish League supporters have urged the BBC to follow RTE's example. One fan who has signed the petition, Johnny Adams from Belfast, said: "I feel our local league is a fantastic product which is growing bigger and better by the year.

"RTE shows a League of Ireland highlights show and so should our local broadcaster.

"If they can show hours of Gaelic football every week along with coverage of local motorsports and more, then why not our local football league?"

Nigel Gordon from Ballymena added: "I have followed local football all my life and the coverage given by the BBC is abysmal.

"Why can they not support local football with one live match a week or at least a weekly highlights programme?"

Stephen Dunn from Comber, who describes himself as a Linfield fan and a BBC TV licence-payer, said: "The BBC's very brief so-called highlights are a disgrace. You're lucky to get all the matches' goals, never mind referee decisions and so on. It's time to catch up with RTE etc - give local fans what they want."

Irish League matches were previously shown live by Sky Sports. The network agreed a landmark deal to show five games a season in April 2007 as part of a £10m agreement with the IFA which also involved live coverage of Northern Ireland games.

Over the next seven years, Sky covered nearly every side in the league, bringing unprecedented exposure to local clubs.

But it ceased coverage at the end of the 2013/14 campaign.

The BBC now has an exclusive contract to cover Irish League football.

It means other broadcasters such as UTV are not allowed to broadcast footage.

The BBC does show the Irish Cup final live, but the League Cup Final - the second biggest cup competition - is restricted to highlights on the BBC iPlayer.

A BBC NI spokeswoman said: "Our new four-year deal with the Irish Football Association sees us bring fans extensive coverage of the Irish Premiership across television, radio and online.

"This has been facilitated by significant investment in technology at Irish League grounds across Northern Ireland.

"As well as the highlights packages on Final Score and the Irish League Show on BBC iPlayer, we provide live radio commentary of weekend and midweek fixtures and have a wide range of content on BBC Sport NI services online, on BBC iPlayer Radio and the BBC Sport NI app."

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