Until September 8 it was business as usual for Scottish football. Glasgow Rangers were preparing to be humiliated by a team of Swedish “no-hopers” in the European Cup; there was internal squabbling at Celtic after the team’s indifferent start to the season; and the resident soothsayers were out in force predicting that the “end was nigh” for the game in Scotland.
But if you took a closer look there were indications that change was afoot. For one, the national team was on the verge of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in France. Hearts, rather than Rangers or Celtic, topped the Premier League and then, most significantly, the chairmen of the ten Premier Scottish teams announced their “intention” of resigning from the Football League to set up a breakaway.
The “intention” bit was a bureaucratic nicety, rather than a note of doubt. The idea has been discussed several times in the past. Most recently, at the start of the 1992/93 season, a Super League was close to completion until the Celtic board got cold feet and decided against the plan.
Ironically, the justification for the current breakaway attempt is the same as the one five years ago. The top ten (eleven if you include Raith Rovers, also a member of the breakaway group) believe that the Scottish football authorities are undervaluing the commercial worth of the game, selling broadcast and sponsorship rights too cheaply.
Although attendances are rising, the Scottish game is still seen by most commentators as being in the doldrums. Rangers has won the Scottish title nine years in a row but has just become the only club in history to be knocked out of two European competitions at the first hurdle in the same season. The quality of football in the domestic game has been deteriorating, despite the importation of foreign players.
The breakaway group’s spokes-man, Hibernian chairman Lex Gold, said on the day the clubs resigned that he would unveil the plans the following day – September 9. But he didn’t. Everybody – the clubs, the authorities, the fans, the sponsors and broadcasters – are all still waiting to see what this new league will look like.
The blueprint for the breakaway is included in a report from the management consultants Deloitte & Touche, which was commissioned by Scotland’s big ten clubs last summer. An abridged version of the report has been published but it is woefully short on concrete detail and the Scottish Football League (SFL) claims it has still not seen the full proposals. Sports sponsorship group the International Management Group (IMG) has also been hired to advise the Premier clubs.
“The proposals are for a ten-strong league with one up, one down, relegation and promotion,” says a spokesman for the breakaway group. “Over time the league could be expanded to 16 teams and all grounds would be all-seater.”
But the top league already has ten teams; relegation and promotion; has discussed expanding its size to 16 teams; and all grounds are already all-seater. So what is new about the breakaway?
Last Wednesday, the rebel chairmen met with the SFL to discuss their plans and the future. The meeting agreed to set up a series of working parties to investigate the future of Scottish football. The rebels want committees to study everything from the commercial value of the game to the development of young players.
On the eve of the meeting United Distillers, which for the past three years has sponsored the four divisions of the Scottish League with its Bell’s brand, withdrew from talks over renewing its sponsorship, which ends in May. UD and the SFL both claim to have been on the verge of signing a new 10m, four-year deal. Bell’s withdrew on the grounds that it did not know what it would be sponsoring.
It was also angry when it heard of the breakaway clubs’ decision to quit the SFL from the media rather than directly from the chairmen – a move justified by a source at the breakaway group on the grounds that it would have been “improper to discuss the subject with a sponsor before telling the other clubs”.
“What they (the Premier club chairmen) regard as a new initiative has cost us a sponsorship deal,” says SFL secretary Peter Donald. “The SFL is simply the clubs and so the club chairmen who are now saying that the SFL has not raised enough money are the same ones that stretched out their hands and said ‘that will do for me’ three years ago.”
Donald remains angry after last Wednesday’s summit meeting. “We are still unable to get the type of information and guidance to make an intelligent judgment on the future and so we have set up a working party – but numerous questions still remain to be answered. What will be the relationship between the SFL and this independent organisation? We have to ensure the other clubs will not be disadvantaged.”
Donald admits it is possible that the league could start next season without a sponsor unless the restructure is agreed soon. The value of the league sponsorship is put into context when you consider that there have been seasons when its has been sponsorless. Previous sponsors have included supermarket chain Fine Fare and DIY store B&Q.
The breakaway group, which already receives 85 per cent of the estimated 19m raised through sponsorship and broadcast rights, has guaranteed that it will provide a minimum 1m for the other 30 clubs in the League if a new breakaway is formed. After UD announced its decision not to renew its contract, the rebel clubs insisted that they had two unsolicited approaches from potential sponsors. But some sponsorship sources remain sceptical.
“We monitor the Scottish market and act for the three headline sponsors of Scottish football – Bell’s, Tennent’s (FA Cup) and Coca-Cola (League Cup),” says Sports Business managing director Alan Ferguson. “We have not heard any rumblings of a sponsor with that kind of money. Nobody is sitting there with that kind of budget allocation filed away awaiting a resolution of this situation.
“It is a long-term commitment and few companies have that level of brand support for a market of just 5 million people. It has always been my view that all the properties (League and cups) were at the top of their values – and that was also recognised by IMG in its valuation report. The Premier League clubs believe they can make more money from the broadcasters and through marketing their own clubs properly,” he says.
A source from the breakaway group says UD might have been using the restructure of the league as an excuse to drop out of football. “The timing of Bell’s decision is curious, the day before the meeting. Perhaps it wanted out and this gave it a good opportunity to leave football.”
But Ferguson says: “If a resolution had been close at the end of September, Bell’s would have extended the talks to the end of October. There was no prospect of that. The outcome of the meeting vindicated UD’s decision – there is a long way to go before resolving this situation.”
Crucially, the end of the season will also see the renegotiation of broadcast rights deals with BSkyB, Scottish Television and the BBC. At the moment Sky pays 10.5m to show 17 live games plus a highlights package, STV pays an estimated 1m for three live games and the BBC pays a similar amount for recorded highlights. It was planned to make more live games available next season to justify an increased deal.
But a valuation as high as 60m for the broadcast rights has been bandied around by some of those close to the breakaway group. Nobody in the Scottish game seems able to identify the source of that figure, which is wholly unrealistic for a league which still depends on the tribal rivalry between Celtic and Rangers for its main broadcast asset. A spokesman for Sky directed all calls to the SFL yet Donald would only say that preliminary talks with the broadcasters had begun but have now stalled.
One source says the rebel clubs have “offered a vision of a brave new world without telling anybody what it will look like”. In that circumstance, sponsors and broadcasters cannot be expected to get involved. The brave new world could turn into yet another false dawn for Scottish football.