Why Scottish Football Should Ignore The Premier League
Scotland might well be the sick man of European football. Once one of the great powers of the continent, the last twenty years have seen a decline that some see as terminal.
The national team has not qualified for a tournament since 1998, the league has been dominated by one team for nearly a decade and the performances of Scottish teams abroad has been less than ideal: in 2007, Scotland was ranked 10th in Europe by UEFA coefficient – now they are 26th, behind Azerbaijan and Cyprus.
The decline has been attributed to a myriad of factors: lack of investment in sporting infrastructure, poor administration by the governing body, falling participation in sports and, of course, the rise of the English Premier League to the south.
In the mid-90s, Rangers and Celtic, the Big Two of Scottish football, could compete financially with the majority of teams in England: now, Rangers have gone bust and been reformed, while Celtic post numbers that would see them below every team in the Premier League but above the English second tier. Simply put, the financial power of England has blown away the ability of Scottish football to compete. England now exists on another plane, with the English clubs that play Champions League football – with whom Glasgow’s giants could once have been compared – on yet another plane above that.
Perhaps, then, the time has come for Scottish football to stop attempting to compete with English football and instead attempt to forge a separate path, conscious that it is fighting a losing battle with an entrenched, widening financial divide between the two. There is a model that takes place in almost exactly the same economic and demographic situation as Scottish football, but has a completely different orientation: rugby league.
Rugby league is followed by largely the same demographic as Scottish football: working class people, with diminishing disposable income and an increasing number of places to spend it. It has its own wealthier counterpart, in the form of Rugby Union, which dominates it in terms of media exposure and financial strength.
The same pressures affecting Scotland in terms of falling participation, poor facilities and insecure finances are shared by the majority of rugby league clubs, who are by and large located on a thin strip between Liverpool and Hull, known as the M62 corridor after the road that runs across England’s north. The population of this region is thought to be 8 million people – Scotland’s is 5.2m – but when it is considered that Liverpool and Manchester are football strongholds with little active participation in rugby league, those two numbers could be considered nearly equal.
Both Scottish football and rugby league, at least at the elite levels, are also almost totally in thrall to pay-TV for the ready cash to fund their games. Conversely, they both boast proud histories, with clubs that are long entrenched in their communities and competitions that have been contested for over a century. The top end involves multi-million-pound businesses, but the lower ends are often ramshackle local clubs staffed by volunteers in some of Europe’s poorest communities.
Both can point to the mid-90s as the point in which ‘modern’ sport overtook the traditional games. In 1996, the Super League, the premier competition in English rugby league, was formed as a breakaway from the traditional structure, a move that was mirrored in Scotland a year later with the formation of the Scottish Premier League. Both were power and money grabs by the top clubs in an attempt to maximize the amount of Sky TV money available to the elite.
Two decades on, TV money is still the financial motor of both games: Scotland’s top tier clubs receive £18m per year, while Super League’s 12 take just under £21m per year from television, which, as both are split 12 ways, results in a domestic TV pot of around £1.75m per club. Super League viewership averages 200,000 viewers per match on Sky – despite graveyard sports slots on Thursday and Friday nights – while Scottish football also around 200,000, which includes up to a million watching Celtic v Rangers derbies, but very few watching, say, Kilmarnock v Hamilton.
Attendances are also strikingly similar. The 2018 Super League was watched by roughly 8,500 people per week and while the Scottish Premiership average attendance was 15,000, skewed by Rangers and Celtic, whose home attendances of more than 40,000 dwarf anything in the Super League. Remove them and it drops to almost exactly 8,500. All things being equal, it can be assumed that matchday revenues are roughly even, as ticket prices are generally quite similar.
Scottish clubs’ wage spend covers a huge range, from £14k/week average wage for a Celtic player down to £798 for Hamilton Academicals. Remove Celtic and Rangers and the average is around £1300. In the Super League, where there is a salary cap linked to the amount paid in TV money, the average player is thought to earn £1250 a month. In the context of the impoverished regions in which the players play – Scotland and the north of England are notably more deprived than the Western European average – these are of course excellent wages, but not so drastically beyond the average as to separate the players from their communities completely.
All this considered, it makes far more sense for Scottish football to use rugby league as a benchmark rather than English football. Super League is far from the paragon of sports administration – they have recently announced a complete revamp of league structure, far from the first – but there are some kernels of ideas that Scottish football could adopt.
The Super League launches regular marketing campaigns to directly target viewers outside of its home region, while also using their paymasters at Sky to tap into an audience of casual sports fans: recent commercials have included TV comedian Johnny Vegas and Olympic legends Bradley Wiggins and Alistair Brownlee to engage a wider audience.
They have also launched their own app, Our League, as a sport-wide membership scheme for fans that offers premium content and discounts on match tickets, as well as gamification via fantasy sports and unique content. Many suspect that, should the next television contract with Sky Sports fail to meet expectations, the entire sport may adopt a pay subscription model to view games live via the app. Moreover, the app allows fans to interact with televised games as they are taking place, with live polls held on the Man of the Match (MVP) award an integral part of the televised match broadcast.
A fully subscriber-based TV deal would represent a total departure from the traditional method of financing elite sport anywhere in the United Kingdom (and likely beyond) but would be in keeping with a wider trend of behavior within rugby league. The NRL, the rugby league competition in Australia, already sells much of its overseas content direct to fans via an app rather than traditional TV deals.
This is a response to polarisation, a phenomenon within sports broadcasting that sees small market, peripheral sports – which both rugby league and Scottish football certainly are – receiving decreasing amounts of the broadcasting pie while those at the top – the Champions League and international rugby union, for example – receive ever more.
Scottish football, in a rare moment of prescience, actually proposed such a system way back in 2002 via SPL TV, which would have created a bespoke channel for the league independent of Sky Sports. Roger Mitchell, who was head of the SPL between 1998 and 2002, spearheaded the scheme and believes that an Over-the-top (OTT) method of rights sale is the way forward for the league.
‘Scottish football has an issue,’ said Mitchell. ‘It has 3 types of rights in one league. Old Firm games are still premium rights for a pay-TV channel and games involving the Old Firm are still good as they drive subscriptions. But they’re not must have. Other SPFL games are filler.’
‘What is the Scottish game’s USP? Its passion, its serious edge, great craic, and connection with history. In short, fans baiting other fans, arguing, laughing. It’s a soap opera of bright color. That can sell if packaged correctly. To a small market but so be it. The league should embed that possibility into game coverage. Pre and post-match as well. Scottish football needs to maximize the desire to contribute to the craic. Today other media take advantage of that selling point, such as through radio phone-ins and Twitter.’
The idea of unbundling the content from pay-TV – that is to say, selling the rights on a segmented basis rather than an all-in model – is something that Scottish football could take advantage of. Rugby league already has something of this model, with high profile fixtures in the Challenge Cup, the premier cup competition, and international matches sold to the BBC at a lesser price in a tradeoff for better exposure via terrestrial television.
‘You can have different products different brands, for different audiences,’ says Mitchell. ‘To do that, you need to control your distribution and not just sell to pay-TV. It’s all in that packaging. A trade-off between an exclusively premium selling of one buyer and segmentation.’
‘You could do a lovely segmentation for marketing and then Sky says, “F*** all that, if I pay you this will you give me it all?” And then they are warehousing rights and maybe not using them.’
For Mitchell, the path is clear. ‘Ideally what I’d do is segment the content into the 3 pots,” he says. ‘I’d sell the Old Firm games to the highest bidder on pay-TV. The games involving the Old Firm and other teams would also likely to end up on pay-TV, but only if the bids were good enough. Then I’d have my own SPLTV content channel. With all other games, linked to full interactivity for comment. You’d just need to light the wood and ventilator it with technology.’
Rugby league is already doing this, of course. Scottish football might do well to follow suit.