Ironi Ramat Hasharon announced this week the launch of an innovative – and quite likely unique – plan to attract fans to its matches.
The Premier League club will hand out around 200 season tickets for free, as long as the supporters actually attend the games.
Instead of paying to watch the matches in the stadium, the supporters will only be charged for the games they miss.
Yes, that is how bad it has gotten for some teams in the Israeli top flight.
For others, business is booming.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv have all sold record numbers of season tickets this summer. Maccabi Tel Aviv fans alone have purchased over 10,000 season tickets and Bloomfield Stadium is already all but guaranteed to be full during all the yellow-and-blue’s home matches this season.
However, beneath the cream of the crop there’s a bowl full of sour grapes that represents the true state of the local game.
Most Premier League teams live from hand to mouth and have no real prospect of improving their big-picture financial status.
Numerous matches are played in front of almost empty stands and, as of Tuesday, apart from Ironi Kiryat Shmona, not one of the league’s teams had yet to have their budgets approved by the Israel Football Association’s Budget Control Authority.
The kickoff times of the first weekend of action this coming Saturday and Sunday were only released on Monday, with a dispute between the IFA and the league’s main sponsor, the Toto, also resulting in the postponement of the start of the National League (second division) by two weeks.
The Toto paid around NIS 77 million for the honor of sponsoring the league last season, a massive amount considering the league’s diminishing popularity.
Besides the empty stadiums, TV ratings have plummeted in recent seasons, while broadcasts of foreign leagues attract more and more viewers.
The Toto is refusing to renew its deal with the IFA after a governmentappointed committee called for the resignation of IFA chairman Avi Luzon in July due to a conflict of interests.
The committee, set up last May by the Minister of Culture and Sport, Limor Livnat, was headed by former Israel Ministry of Finance Accountant General, Yaron Zelicha, and was asked to review the inner workings of Israeli soccer.
One of the committee’s 12 main recommendations demanded Luzon step down as IFA chairman, and the Toto, which in many ways is controlled by the Minister of Sport, is refusing to continue to bankroll the league until he does so.
Luzon, who has never denied his love for Maccabi Petah Tikva, the club he used to run, says that Livnat has a personal vendetta against him, and there is some truth to that claim. The chairman has promised to raise the missing income from other sources and for the time being he has the support of the majority of the owners.
However, both sides are aware that they are holding very weak hands in this game of poker and would both benefit from a compromise.
The IFA and the Toto are sticking to their guns for the meantime, leaving the already struggling clubs to suffer from the loss of major income they badly need.
In an act of desperation, Luzon tried to auction off the league’s TV rights from 2016 until 2019, demanding much of the sum in advance. But the bidding process was ultimately postponed following complaints by the different broadcasters.
The dispute also resulted in the cancellation of the Toto Cup, severely damaging the professional preparations of most teams. The initial group stage of Israeli soccer’s second cup competition is always played before the start of the league season and effectively acts as a pre-season for many of the sides.
Once more, the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will not suffer as they have already had the chance to sharpen their games in the qualifying rounds of European competitions.
But the rest will be entering the league far less prepared than usual after not having the opportunity to test their lineup and find their form.
There is palpable excitement among the league’s devotees ahead of the start to the new season. However, the ardent core of fans continues to shrink with every passing year and the league’s future only seems to get bleaker.
As matters are currently being run, it won’t be long before teams struggle to even find anyone willing to be paid to watch a match.